A young woman of means travels alone from England to Palestine circa 1906 to study flowers referenced in the Bible.
Ill at ease on her wealthy parents’ estate, Beatrice Campbell-Bennett, protagonist of this novel exploring the fine line between religious ecstasy and psychosis, arrives in Jaffa with her paints, sketchbook and a desire to purge herself of unrequited love for Vanessa Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s older sister. Traveling on horseback, Beatrice makes her determined way across the burning, stone-and-ancient-ruins–littered Holy Land accompanied by her dragoman, Aziz, an Arab youth fluent in English who often mocks her Christian devotion. (He saves his venom for immigrating Jews.) As they progress, Beatrice identifies and sketches the rose of Jericho, the Sodom apple, the buckthorn, from which Christ’s crown was made, and nard, an aromatic from the Song of Solomon, but not the mandrake, the flower Leah used to purchase a night with Jacob. And so they travel on. During their journey, much to Aziz’s consternation, Beatrice meets and grows to admire several pilgrim Jews, whose religious rituals and vengeful God appeal to her longing for expiation. A brutal rape and its consequences bring Beatrice’s sanity and future into question. Told only through Beatrice’s letters home, her private journals, which at times seem to belie her correspondence, and the analytical notes of an initially skeptical psychiatrist who is sent by Beatrice’s parents to find their daughter, the story treks through the vast historical conundrum that is Palestine, while at the same time revealing the motives of Beatrice. Megged (Foiglman, 2003, etc.), winner of the Koret and Israel prizes, adroitly addresses the difficulty of finding truth among competing versions of the same story.
At times as cruelly beautiful as Paul Bowles’s godless prose, this Sphinx-like novel offers a striking portrait of the Middle East—past, present and, perhaps, future.