This reimagining of John the Baptist’s life gives the itinerate prophet a Greek wife who desperately wants him to avert his dark destiny.
The Bible doesn’t mention a wife for the locust-and-honey-eating forerunner of the Christian savior, but as the titular wife here reasonably explains: “A woman, in those days, was not counted. So even after we were married, people continued to say that John lived alone in the wilderness.” Hessa, who narrates the novel, tells of growing up “in Decapolis, south of the Sea of Galilee and west of the Jordan River, during the time when Judea was a Roman province.” K.’s (The Concubine’s Gift, 2011) vivid writing engagingly depicts the ancient Middle East, describing “Phoenician traders from the sea coast, jewelers from Jerusalem, fine pottery merchants from Greece, lumber dealers from Syria and even magicians from Egypt.” In a touch of magical realism, her merchant father values her ability to tell an object’s history simply by holding it. Though he wants her to marry abroad to solidify his trading connections, her latent adventurousness makes her hesitant to marry at all, until one day in the marketplace she meets a man with “the beautiful, dark eyes of a wild girl.” When she touches John’s hand she knows he fears neither poverty nor death. They marry against her father’s wishes and wander south together along the banks of the Jordan, living in a goatskin tent. Theirs is a Song of Solomon kind of marital bliss, yet Hessa fears the way John is drawn to an increasingly public life, attracting followers she must then find a way to feed as well as the attentions of the land’s Roman occupiers and Zealot rebels. Though the story inevitably leads to John’s martyrdom, it is more so the story of a marriage rather than the tumultuous events that surrounded it.
A slow-moving but well-written tale embroidering the life of one of Scripture’s most charismatic figures.