I wanted a respite from the dark-themed books I had been reading for the R.I.P. IV Challenge. Something opposite these, I thought.  My eye settled on this religious fiction by Rebecca Kohn which had been  forever in my TBR pile.

Author :  Rebecca Kohn

Date of Publication : 2005

Publisher : Penguin Books (mass paperback)

ISBN-10: 0143035339

No. of pages :  384

The Story :

This is a story of how a young Jewish orphan, Esther, became Queen to one of the most powerful rulers of the ancient world, King Xerxes. But her story is unique because she goes down in Biblical history as one of those really rare heroines in the Old Testament who succeeded in saving her people from annihilation.

Hadassah, for her own survival, embraces the name Esther and becomes a closet Jew when she is abducted to serve in Xerxes’ harem as part of a crop of young virgins from which he would choose his new bride. (Xerxes had banished his beautiful but cruel wife, Queen Vashti, in a drunken pique for her refusal to appear before his party guests on his command.)

Esther comes to live in the harem, doing the best she can to get along with everyone.   She learns that in such an autocratic and hierarchical-sensitive environment,  the virtues of obedience, submissiveness,  generosity, respect of and deference to authority make life tolerable and endows her with the ability to influence others.

Upon her first presentation to the King,  Esther captivates him and in one night, makes a meteoric rise to Queen.

But her new life is threatened when Xerxes’ issues an edict calling all Jews to be annihilated, as per Haman’s, his corrupt chief advisor’s, whim. Haman is incensed that the Jew, Mordechai, the treasury official and in secret, Esther’s cousin, refuses obeisance to him, and so extends his wrath to all Jews.

Queen Esther is faced with a dangerous dilemma :   save her people by exposing her true lineage and forcing an uninvited audience with the King (an unsummoned presence before the King can earn one the death penalty) to plead for her people’s lives or keep mum about her Jewish parentage to save her own life and her position as Queen.

And so goes one of the most romantic stories in the Old Testament.

My Review :

The tale of Esther is a very powerful and moving story of courage and selflessness.  It is a tale of  a woman’s style of patriotism that necessitated giving up her life for one’s country/people.  It also has very significant religious points that reinforces the belief in (1) God’s existence;  (2) His constant vigil over His Chosen People and (3) His divine will and purpose for each person’s existence.

Rebecca Kohn  tries to capture this with by sticking quite closely to Esther’s story,  narrating it in her florid, romantic style  that makes her descriptions so rich and vibrant:

” The eunuch stopped before the door to the harem court.  On the doorjambs before me, a molded relief of the king fought a rearing lion monster with no more than a dagger in his bare hands….the eunuch rasped,…’You will live here in great comfort until your breasts sag and your sweet honeycomb shrivels…’….I looked at the eunuch , my eyes wide with terror…The lion monster on the doorjamb lunged for me.  I fled from the creature’s wide mouth and sharp claws into the harem court.”   — p.43

Her character, Esther, is a refreshingly different take on the ideal of a strong woman. Here, we see a girl who was strong without having the usual feminist aggressive, adventurous, stubborn, iron-willed character that a lot of writers favor to make their heroine so interesting.  Instead, Esther’s subservience and obedience coupled with her grace and feminine charms realistically favors her successful adaptation  to a masculinely dominated world where women’s subjugation are part of  its culture.   She succeeds without having to be obvertly defiant or wilful;  she simply does what she morally thinks is right in her own firm, quiet, patient way.

However, as a whole, the novel just didn’t quite make it to my standards for an outstanding rating.  Somehow, it just fell a little flat for reasons I cannot really define.  Perhaps, it was the ending which I felt wasn’t quite satisfactorily resolved and  rather anticlimactic at that.

In A Nutshell :

As a debut novel though, “The Gilded Chamber” is a good first effort.  I’ve taken to her writing style so that I’m not put off  from reading other novels Kohn may have churned out by now.    Moreover, for those looking for a fast read, this novel is it.   Aside from being a light read,  it’s got much more intellectual “meat” than say, a vampire or chick-lit novel;  so a good choice for that next beach read.

My Mark :  Very Good

With his “Women of Genesis” series, Orson Scott Card tackles the challenge of bringing ancient Biblical women  to believable life.  The author directs attention to those extraordinary women of their time, giving them prominence where the Old Testament had minimized them and bestowing on them a relevancy to readers of today.

The Author :   Orson Scott Card

Publisher: Forge Books; 1st edition (November 28, 2002)

ISBN-10: 076534128X

ISBN-13: 978-0765341280

No. of pages : 416

The Story :

Motherless at a young age, a Hebrew maiden, Rebekah,  matures early to become a beautiful, practical, intelligent, and headstrong girl with an unwavering faith in God.

As per the Biblical story,  a group of travelers spy Rebekah coming to the well.  The master among them asks for a drink, to which she readily obliges.  It is Eliezer,  a servant from the great house of Abraham who had tasked him to seek a wife for his son, Isaac, heir to the Holy Scriptures, the birthright.  Eliezer had prayed to the Lord to help point out Isaac’s would-be bride by sending him a woman who would do what was considered improper : talking to a stranger at the well; drawing water for his drink; and pouring water for his animals as well.  For Eliezer, God answers his prayers with this beautiful Hebrew maiden who does all what he had determined as signs of His choice.

Immediately, Eliezer negotiates with Bethuel, Rebekah’s father, for her hand in marriage to Isaac.  Rebekah regards the honor of being the chosen bride  for the heir of the birthright and therefore Abraham’s future daughter-in-law, as God’s will for her. Thus, she leaves her father, Bethuel, to take a coveted place in Abraham’s promised destiny of becoming the Father of Nations.

However, her awe of Abraham’s status in the eyes of the Lord quickly falls to disappointment when her headstrong and practical  personality clashes with his.  She also comes to struggle with Isaac’s low self-esteem and his tension-filled relationship with his father.  In a cultural milieu where women are subject to the will their fathers, brothers, or husband, Rebekah learns to adapt and make her way so her opinions and beliefs could be acknowledged by the men in her life.

Several years into the marriage, Rebekah’s prayers for children are answered when she conceives and gives birth to twins, Esau and Jacob.  God speaks to her through a prophecy foretelling that her second-born son, Jacob, would inherit the birthright from Isaac.  In ancient Hebrew society in which inheritances are  strictly handed  to firstborn sons, this was a gravely disturbing revelation.   As her children grow,  Esau exhibits athleticism and rashness and quickly becomes Isaac’s and Abraham’s  favorite.  Thoughtful, introspective and responsible Jacob becomes his mother’s.

All through her life, Rebekah’s character is marked by her intense faith and love of God.  Thus,  her reverance for the Scriptures  encompasses a  strong protective regard for them.   It is her belief that the heir of the Holy Scripture or birthright should be the son who is most likely to ensure its sanctity and preservation through the generations.   Esau , being a more physically oriented man, is wholly uninterested in the scrolls, while Jacob reads and studies them.   With her strong conviction of the worthiness of Jacob and her realization that the prophecy should come to pass, Rebekah contrives to fool Isaac, by now,  old and blind,  into conferring the blessing on Jacob.  She succeeds and so we have a story that segues into a story of Jacob, which is dealt with in a separate book.

The Review :

This is a lovely story of faith and fortitude against cultural odds.  The lot of women in the Old Testament is often a subservient one in a very patriarchal culture.  Women in the Bible, therefore, have mostly served as supporting roles to the Biblical male stars.  With very few exceptions like Eve,  they are often overlooked and their importance denigrated in Biblical history.  (But although Eve has a prominent role in the Genesis, it is a dark one,  that of being credited to have caused man’s downfall and his original sin.)

Orson Scott Card has successfully taken this biblical one-dimensionally drawn female character, Rebekah,  and given her a very plausible personality that explains her actions and her daring decisions, that of leaving her family and traveling miles to marry a man she has never met,  deceiving her husband and betraying her firstborn son of the birthright which by religious and cultural laws was Esau’s to inherit.   Card’s  Rebekah seems like a woman out of our century; but then, it may be because a strong woman’s nature may not be all that inherently different despite time and change.

What is astonishing, though, is Card’s depiction of two very important Genesis characters : Abraham and Isaac.  He delves into what must have been a traumatizing experience  for the sacrificial Isaac and imagines what his psyche might have been after almost being served up to God.   He creatively comes up with a realistic probability that Isaac, who had to face near death by the hand of his own father,  must have been emotionally scarred for life.  So, he  takes this premise and depicts Isaac as suffering from low self-esteem with constant craving for approval from Abraham.  His poor self image carries on to affect how he relates with his sons, Jacob and Esau,  his father,  Abraham and his wife, Rebekah. 

In Card’s story, Abraham, despite being God’s chosen one, is still subject to human frailties.  As an ordinary man, he has high regard for manliness (meaning physical prowess, brashness, fearlessness—traits of a “true man”) and thus cannot help but be disappointed in his mild-mannered, introverted, quiet heir and proud of his other son, Ishmael, who exhibits all these enviable qualities.

With all these human flaws and strengths imbued in his characters, Card relates the dynamics of relationships within this ancient Biblical family, producing a very interesting humanistic story that brings the Bible’s account into contemporary understanding and empathy.

To Read Or Not To Read :

I must commend the author for his vivid imaginations of the story behind the bland skeletal account written in the Bible.   Indeed,  his purpose  must be to influence the reader to see beyond the Biblical story and actually appreciate the trials and tribulations those Biblical people must have gone through in their love and absolute faith in the Lord, meriting their lives’ immortalization for thousands of years in the Holy Scripture.  The reader is persuaded to see Rebekah, Isaac, Abraham, Jacob, Esau, et. al. as “real people” whose actions and choices were driven by the same factors that drive many of us today.

The intense faith in God by the characters whose lives were dedicated to serving His will is palpable in the novel and is quite humbling if one compares  it to today’s degree of faith.

This novel may lead you to a much better appreciation of the Old Testament stories.   As an engaging read, this should be in your list of fruitful things to pass your time with.

My Mark :  Outstanding