Diski continues her examination of Old Testament figures (she began with Abraham and Sarah in Only Human, 2001), focusing this time on Isaac and Jacob.
Eschewing the costume melodrama of much historical fiction, Diski instead pares down the biblical stories to their emotional, universal core. Beginning with Isaac, she creates a portrait of a hollow man, forever traumatized by a brush with death. Abraham’s planned sacrifice of Isaac is one of the great teaching tales of the Bible, but here it’s flipped on its side as we get the boy’s terrified perspective. Isaac climbs the mountain with his father in a kind of stupor, knowing Abraham plans to kill him. Emotionally, if not physically dead after the event, Isaac grows into a shattered man: fearful, hypochondriacal, cruel to his wife—in short, nothing like his brave half-brother Ishmael, banished but better in every way. Isaac’s own sons, Esau and Jacob, are similar to Isaac and Ishmael. The favorite, Esau, is dull and crude, while Jacob, small and mollycoddled, proves clever and ambitious. Jacob deceives his brother and, upon doing so, flees, fearing revenge. He travels to his mother’s people and meets the beautiful, haughty Rachel. Jacob strikes a deal and, after seven years of labor, wins Rachel’s hand, but it is her plain, older sister, Leah, he’s tricked into marrying. Eventually he marries Rachel, too, and thereafter the two wives make his life miserable. He loves Rachel to distraction but it is only the despised Leah who bears him sons. Finally, Rachel gives birth to Joseph and, as before, the less worthy son becomes the best loved.
An elegant, multifaceted discourse on narrative, God and free will, and where the three occasionally meet.