Patricia Storace’s provocative novel The Book of Heaven begins in the heaven of Greek mythology. A female narrator trying to escape rape by Orion the hunter jumps into a river of stars, which carry her to four hidden constellations. Each new zodiac is represented by a symbol central to a woman’s story: a knife, a cooking cauldron, a paradise garden and countless entwined lovers.
Storace says the narrator is based on Eve, but she didn’t want to call her by the name given to her by the men who wrote the Bible. In Storace’s version, she originates in heaven and must take bites of the golden apples of knowledge, memory, death and love in order to become human and join man on earth.
Storace writes in prose clearly influenced by the cadence of poetry: “Each human must invent human love, a chance that will be given to you in becoming human. And for all the atrocity they have done and will do, it is still through human love, and no other, that appetite, desire, and pleasure themselves become the source of ethics, which knowledge makes inseparable from love.”
Asked whether she set out to write a feminist version of the Bible, Storace says the word “feminist” has become so charged and compromised, she doesn’t know what it means any more. Instead, she wanted to write a “humanist” book, drawing attention to little-known bits of history and mythology. Some characters are inspired by figures in the Bible, but she wanted to be free to pose questions that haven’t been posed before.
Even as a child, Storace loved richly imagined other worlds. She had access to an attic of 19th century children’s books, including The Arabian Nights. She named her dolls after the characters in a children’s version of Homer’s Odyssey.
The first chapter, “The Book of Souraya,” is influenced by the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah. Storace says she was struck by the intensity of Sarah not being able to have a child, then bearing a son and banishing her husband’s other son. She was also mystified by why Sarah’s whereabouts are unmentioned after Abraham nearly sacrificed their son.
Storace dedicates “The Book of Savour” to the memory of the Russian botanist, Nicolai Vavilov. He grew up in an era of crop failures and lived through the siege of St. Petersburg, when the German army prevented Russian troops from getting food. He dreamed of ending famine in the world and established the largest seed collection in the world. Ironically, many of the guards protecting his seed bank died of starvation during the war. Vavilov himself died in prison after being sentenced to death by Stalin.
Where did the idea of writing an alternative bible come from? After finishing her memoir of Greece, Storace started a historical novel before the idea for The Book of Heaven came in a dream. Years earlier, an astrologer who read her chart when she was a student at the University of Cambridge saw writing something like the Bible in her future. Not knowing how to begin, she first worked on a children’s book and a complicated piece of journalism, covering former president Bill Clinton’s health and disaster-relief campaign in Asia. Finally, a breakthrough came when an editor told her, “your characters shouldn’t be hailing passing camels,” wanting her to free herself from realism.
Storace says the most difficult chapter to write was “The Book of Rain,” represented by the Paradise Nebula constellation because it “is in dialogue with the Book of Job,” and it has to do with hatred. It also references a historical figure: Agnes Sampson, a Scottish healer and purported witch who confessed to using magical prayers and plants to alleviate the pain of suffering. King James, patron of the King James Bible, personally supervised her torture and execution.
Why did she include a set of proverbs at the end of each chapter? Storace says she wanted the women in the stars to have their own moral authority. She describes her last constellation “the Lovers’ Cluster” as “the glory of the heavens.” Drawing from Hebrew, Islamic and Ethiopian sacred texts, “The Book of Sheba” tells us that “men have seized the privilege of naming the stars; but it was women who invented Heaven.”
Nancy Robertson is a radio producer and book reviewer.