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Friday, October 9, 2015

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A young woman’s journey through 9th century Babylonia

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Rahel, a 17-year-old Jewish girl living in the ninth century in Sura, in what was then Babylonia (Bavel), is about to be happily married off to a prominent scholar. But suddenly everything changes when her father, a popular physician, becomes the enemy of a powerful antisemite Abu Said.

And so begins The Wayward Moon (Yotzeret Publishing), the debut novel by Janice Weizman, a Toronto-born writer who now lives in Israel.

When Said kills her father, Rahel, whose mother died in childbirth, is forced to make a long and perilous journey by herself to a distant relative in Tiflis, in northern Iraq.

This journey is the setting of the novel, told primarily in three parts: Slavery, Knowledge and Freedom.

The first of these three parts is the best and could have been a shorter novel in its own right.

Knowing that the open roads are not safe, especially for women, Rahel dresses as a man, and leaves her beloved hometown, a major centre of Jewish learning at the time.

 But when she reaches Baghdad, her true gender becomes revealed when she is captured and sold as a slave to a wealthy silk merchant.

Thinking it best to keep her Jewish identity hidden, she takes on a Muslim name and is sent to work in the kitchen. Although it’s not ideal, and a bit beneath her station as the daughter of a physician, she knows it’s better than the alternative – starving in the streets. It also worries her that Islamic law permits a master to lie with his slave and her master happens to have at least two randy sons.

When things at the merchant’s house turn sour, Rahel decides to don her man’s outfit once more and continue on her journey.

In the Knowledge part of the book, Rahel gets diverted from her journey and ends up working in a Christian monastery somewhere north of Baghdad.

Her cover story is that she is a Christian boy, Yusef, named after the biblical story of Joseph. But, she tells the monks, when her father died, her mother married a Muslim and they converted.

Although she chooses to stay at the monastery, she feels alienated and is confused by the monks’ custom of profaning the Sabbath and revering the Jewish prophets while at the same time disdaining Jews. The sermons’ virulent antisemitism is also a cause for concern. She understands that the monks’ show of love for her is only because they think she’s Christian.

Although not without faults, Rahel is a likable enough character. She’s a strong woman at a time when women were regarded as weak.

The very act of departing on this dangerous journey was a brave decision, one she was forced to make because of her circumstances.

She is also very hard-headed. Time and time again, she refuses offers of safety and security in order to complete her journey.

For instance, one time when she is sick in the monastery, a Jewish doctor treats her, and when he examines her, he discovers not only that she is female but also, after inquiry, that she is Jewish.

He offers to come back for her when she is better and take her to his town of Mosul, where he would find her a suitable groom.

Tempting as the offer is, she rejects it after some deliberation, preferring to continue on her dangerous journey to Tiflis, even though she’s not even sure her relative is even alive.

But the problem with the Knowledge part of the book – even ignoring the unlikelihood of her true gender not being discovered in a monastery full of men – is that it gets weighted down by theological and philosophical discussions.

Rahel befriends a kind monk, Anton, who instructs her in the classics – Socrates and Plato – and a series of eye-rolling discussions ensues, including a lecture on Sophocles’ Antigone and something called “entelechy.”

Though the next section, Freedom, in which she leaves the monastery and finds work, and love, picks up a bit, the book never reaches the heights promised in the opening section.

This is a shame because there is much to praise in The Wayward Moon. Lovers of historical fiction and strong female characters will enjoy the story but might be put off by the weightiness of the middle section.

Weizman has a terrific feel for the time period, and her characters and descriptions (from what people wore and what they ate to what they did for pleasure) are highly illustrative.

When it’s at its best, The Wayward Moon reminds me of recent historical novels such as Eva Weisman’s The Last Song and Roberta Rich’s delightful The Midwife of Venice.

* * *

David Liss has been one of my favourite contemporary writers since I discovered his debut novel, A Conspiracy of Paper in 2000.

I was surprised that his latest book, released last year, The Twelfth Enchantment (Random House,) fell under my radar.

But after I read it, my surprise turned to disappointment.

Whether it’s the early days of the London Stock Exchange, the 1722 general election in England, or even the formation of the National Bank in America, most of Liss’ novels tend to be historical mysteries and thrillers set against the background of real historical events and frequently involving the Jewish “thief-taker” Benjamin Weaver.

In this book, set against the backdrop of the Luddite uprising and the Industrial Revolution, Lucy, a young woman, whose parents both died, is sent to her uncle’s house to await her impending forced marriage to a dour mill owner named Olson.

But when Lord Byron, (yes, that Lord Byron) shows up outside the house vomiting pins and muttering something about “picking up the leaves,” the novel takes a surreal turn into fantasy literature.

Lucy soon discovers that she has the power to learn and cast spells and, with the help of a new friend, Mary Crawford, Lucy crafts her knowledge of the occult.

We are painfully rushed toward a climax that has more spells and counter spells than a Harry Potter book.

This is a huge – and ambitious – departure for Liss, and while I might enjoy historical fiction with a supernatural touch (I highly recommend Dan Simmons’ Drood), unfortunately, this isn’t what I’ve come to expect from him and was left, ultimately, disappointed.

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