Delilah (2011): Eleanor de Jong

★★

My quest to find decent novels about Ancient Mesopotamia continues, although I’m still not having much luck finding books about this period other than Biblical fiction. And so I came to Eleanor de Jong’s Delilah, the story of my favourite Biblical harlot-hairdresser. It turned out to be quite a contradiction: a Biblical tale that doesn’t particularly follow the Bible; an historical novel which shows little interest in history; and a story which should show women at their most wily and powerful, neutered into a love story. Come, join me, as we try to tease our way through an increasingly unfamiliar Biblical tale.

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In the Shadow of the Ark (2001): Anne Provoost

★★★

When I saw this novel tucked away in a local charity shop, I pounced immediately. How could I resist a story about the Ark so soon after ferreting deep into the history of its legend? Originally published in Dutch in 2001 (the author is Flemish), it has been translated into English by John Nieuwenhuizen and takes us into a strange and foreign world of fishermen and nomads, boat-builders and prophets. And, at the heart of the tale, is the rumour of a great boat being built in the middle of a desert by a crazy old man, and the young woman who travels with her family to answer the call for workers.

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Esther: Royal Beauty (2014): Angela Hunt

★★★

A Dangerous Beauty Novel: Book I

Ladies and gents, it’s time for another foray into Achaemenid historical fiction. This time we’ll be travelling via the medium of Biblical fiction – a genre which is not of any great interest to me, in and of itself, but which accounts for the vast majority of historical fiction set in the ancient Near East. As you’ll probably remember, I read a novel about Esther not very long ago and I was curious to see whether Hunt’s rendition of the story would have anything in common with Lofts’s beyond the bare bones of the story related in the Bible. The answer is: very little, but Hunt has evidently read her Herodotus, which means that this Esther has a weight of historical plausibility that Lofts’s lacked.

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How Far to Bethlehem? (1964): 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.

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The Liars’ Gospel (2012): Naomi Alderman

★★★★

As a writer, Naomi Alderman is a veritable chameleon. First I read The Lessons, a tale of a fall from grace among the dreaming spires, in the manner of a modern Brideshead. Then it was The Power, a Margaret-Atwoodesque novel that veered between dystopia and sci-fi: a feminist, egalitarian cry of rage. And now, the third of her novels that I’ve read, The Liars’ Gospel is a raw and rugged historical novel. Brave, too, because it dares to confront one of the world’s seminal figures: in life, a controversial and provocative young preacher in 1st-century AD Judea; and, in death, the begetter of a cult that would become one of the dominant religions of the world. But who exactly was this teacher?

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Esther (1950): Norah Lofts

★★★½

My enduring mission to hunt down fiction set in Achaemenid Persia brought me to this book: a retelling of the story of Esther by Norah Lofts, who impressed me with her King’s Pleasure. Expressly aimed at teenage readers, it’s a charming little book which conveys both Esther’s intelligence and the king’s humanity in a far more effective and engaging way than the painful film One Night with the King. It was so enjoyable, in fact, that I was willing to accept a fairly major historical swerve.

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The Secret Chord (2015): Geraldine Brooks

★★★½

The men of Yudah still tell stories of how their ancestors followed the prophet Moshe out of captivity in Mitzrayim to found new cities of their own. But their recent history has been less glorious. Troubled by Plishtim raiders from the Levantine coast, the people come to the prophet Shmuel begging him to anoint a king which, unwillingly, he does. The choice falls on Shauel, tall, handsome and charismatic, but Shauel and Shmuel soon diverge in their ambitions.

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The Testament of Mary: Colm Tóibín

★★★★

A woman sits in an empty house, waiting for the men who come to interrogate her. They claim to be protecting her, but she knows that they are also dangerous in their own way. They’re gripped by the urgency of an idea that needs corroboration: a story that in their own minds has taken on a different reality which they now intend to present to the world. But the woman resists. For the story that these men are trying to change is the story of her son; and the more she hears them speak, the more she realises that her own past, as she remembers it, is bearing less and less resemblance to what will become ‘fact’.

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