How Far to Bethlehem?: Norah Lofts

★★★½

I discovered this book during a pre-Christmas exploration of the Book Barn, a few miles from where I live, and decided it was perfect for the festive season. The plan was to finish it last night, on Christmas Day, but what with the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special, and the satiety brought on by too much Christmas pudding, I didn’t quite get round to it. It’s a thoughtful, rich rendition of the Nativity story, in which the familiar events of the bible are set within their historical context at the turn of the 1st century AD. Most intriguing is Lofts’s vision of the three wise men, who between them span the three known continents of the ancient world.

Melchior is a scholar trained at Pyongyang University in Korea: a passionate astronomer, who has exhausted his sizable inheritance by building a magnificent observatory from which he can observe the heavens. With all his heart fixed on the skies, he barely notices the things of this world, such as his mutely adoring slave Senya, or their rapidly dwindling supplies. Elderly master and aged slave are on the verge of starvation when Melchior glimpses something extraordinary – a new star, which brings omens and prophecies which disturb him deeply. Despite his great age, he becomes determined to head west, into unknown country, in search of a child, due to be born somewhere near a town said to be called Jerusalem. Impractical, innocent and single-minded, he sets out.

Gaspar is the lord of Jexal, one of the most beautiful and prosperous cities in the world. Although Lofts seems to have invented its name, I wondered if it was a fictional equivalent of Merv in what is now Turkmenistan which, back in the day, was a hugely wealthy city on the Silk Road. Gaspar is not its hereditary king, but a nomadic horse-lord – perhaps akin to the Kushan tribal leaders of the 1st century AD? – who has come sweeping south with his hordes, and conquered the effete softness of the Jexalan royal line. Now he finds himself installed in a palace, which suffocates him; bothered by issues of administration and etiquette, which bore him; and captivated by the daughter of the former king, which irritates him. He pines for the days when he had a mount under him and a tent to shelter him at night and a horizon to ride towards. And so, when an elderly scholar on a broken-down camel arrives in Jexal with a remarkable story, Gaspar wonders whether it mightn’t be time for one last adventure before his youth vanishes forever.

Balthazar is a slave, plucked from his African homeland and trained as a secretary. Having served a number of masters, he now finds himself in the house of The Lady, a vicious and short-tempered widow who has no care for her servants. Bereft of his childhood gods and unmoved by those he sees around him in the Levant, Balthazar is a man subconsciously searching for meaning. And so, when he sees a remarkable vision – himself, splendidly dressed and riding in company with two other men – he wonders how this wonderful thing can come about. More and more, Balthazar realises that this might be his last chance to escape captivity and to be part of something greater than himself.

And what draws these three remarkable things together? A child, yet to be born: the child of a sweet young girl, an innocent dreamer, who believes that something momentous is about to happen. As this girl, Mary, finds her great destiny unfolding, we meet those who have an impact on her story: not just her loyal husband, Joseph, but her mother Anne; the shepherd Josodad who sits in the hills above Bethlehem, nursing an old grief; the innkeeper Ephorus, remembering his crushed dreams; the Roman officer stationed at the barracks, mourning a lost friendship and a fading youth; Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, whose own destiny is so closely intertwined with hers; and finally the king, Herod, the Roman collaborator whose geniality masks a ruthless determination to preserve his throne.

This isn’t going to put the cat among the pigeons in any way whatsoever. Lofts doesn’t approach the story in the kind of critical way that I saw in The Testament of Mary or The Liars’ GospelChoirs of angels, glory and visions are all present and correct, but she tells it in such a way that we get to think anew about these biblical figures. They’re no longer remote names, shrouded in the poetry of the King James Bible, but real men and women with concerns and fears and histories all of their own. It hardly keeps you on the edge of your seat, as we all know only too well how it goes, but it’s a pleasant read, full of satisfying diversity, and a perfect way to reflect on the Christmas story.

Personally I found Esther more fun, but the more I read of Lofts, the more I like her. Fortunately I came away with two other novels by her in the same haul: Crown of Aloes, which introduces us to Queen Isabella, (mother of Katharine of Aragon who featured in The King’s Pleasure); and The Lute Player, about Richard I and Blondel.

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