Offering both poetic and standard fare at turns, theologian Engel’s first novel combines the story of Lot’s wife with a contemporary narrative of a woman’s search for personal absolution.
The story begins as Ruth, an academic, 40, and pregnant, is summoned to her dying mother’s bed, a journey she’s not sure she wants to make. Raised in a strict Dutch Calvinist community, Ruth has spent the better part of her life seeking the approval of this fanatical, dominating mother, and, in turn, rebelling against her. Throughout, her decisions have been governed by the search for a knowable God. Her attempts, whether made by swimming long distances underwater as a child, taking mescaline in college, or living at a Swiss religious retreat, do little to shore the rift between body and soul, making Ruth bitter and, now, afraid of the child she is about to bear. Hearkening to the tale of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the fateful backward glance from the wife of Lot, the story offers Midrashic interpretation (“narrative exploration of the meaning hidden in the silences of the text”) as Ruth is led to question the multiplicity of reasons that caused Lot’s wife to look behind. The Midrashim—sometimes fanciful turnings on the Lot story, sometimes explanations of historic readings—are always of interest, though early on they may seem to have no relation to Ruth’s life. And, indeed, Ruth’s stories sometimes falter (while her childhood and young adulthood are relayed in sharp detail, the next 20 years are covered by sporadic instances meant to stand for all the missing years between), requiring a double interpretation both for Ruth and the wife of Lot. Still, by novel’s end, the narrative threads merge harmoniously, leaving an impression of hope and grace.
Not wholly successful but, nonetheless, an ambitious, striking debut.