Here is the text of a review I wrote for Anna Patricio’s Asenath – the name of the Egyptian wife given to Joseph according to the biblical book of Genesis. The review itself may be found on Amazon (UK and com) and Goodreads. As you will see, I enjoyed the book, once I had appreciated its young-adult target, and hope to read other books by Anna in time.
An unreserved five stars for Asenath so far as I am concerned! Anna Patricio has done a great job at imagining and describing a possible reality behind the scanty details given in the biblical book of Genesis regarding Joseph’s Egyptian wife.
I started this book not quite realising that it was aimed at a young adult audience, and so after a chapter or two had to readjust my thinking. That done, it was easy to slip into the swing of the narrative and enjoy the reconstruction. Others who begin reading with the right expectation will not have to carry out this internal switch – but you will need to be aware of the target audience in order to have the right expectations.
Anyone writing around a biblical episode faces the problem that, to a degree, readers already know the ending. Anna is aware of this, and in my view does a great job of instilling a sense of ‘so that’s how it happened’ when you get to items already known from the source materials. The points at which the storyline intersects with the biblical context come over as natural rather than forced, and one feels that Anna did not feel blocked or constrained by these boundaries to her writing.
It’s a while since I read young adult rather than adult material, and it did not take long to appreciate the differences. Obviously sex is toned down substantially from the last novel I reviewed (Michal’s Window (A Novel: King David’s First Wife)), and from my own writing (In a Milk and Honeyed Land). Even within those constraints, Anna manages to show that human intimacy can be pitched anywhere from tender and loving to violent and brutal.
Also, the characters tend to be more easily pigeonholed for character and motive, and the issues and moral problems they face are simpler. There are few people about whom one is in doubt about their intentions. Writing for a more adult audience, I would personally have been inclined to write more moral ambiguity into the characters, especially Joseph’s family who are presented in Genesis as a very dubious collection of individuals, but here seem uniformly attractive. But I think the simpler depictions are appropriate for, and consistent with, the overall standpoint of Asenath.
Having said that, one of the great themes of the book is to see how men and women can be transformed, and redeemed, by the contagious power of moral courage. Here, as in so much of the Hebrew Bible material from which the story is drawn, real change is effected by prolonged personal contact with lives lived out by consistent moral principles, not by listening to speeches or reading texts. So the characters definitely change and grow through the book, mostly but not entirely from bad to good. Prior events, experiences and traumas are not glossed over, but frequently return to haunt, be confronted by, and (typically in the end) overcome by the participants. This narrative theme can resonate equally well in both ancient Israel and Egypt.
From a technical background the details are reasonably well researched. Anna makes a brave choice to select a specific year to start her book (1554 BC), where I would be a little more vague! A range of proper Egyptian terms are used, typically words for rank or items used in worship. Place names are given in modern forms (for example Karnak), which the geeky part of me regretted – but since there is no map, those who are not geeks will therefore be able to look them up on a regular map and orient themselves! Some rituals and key life events which we do not have actual source material for (such as the wedding ceremony) are invented in a rich and consistent manner that does not disrupt the sense of immersion in ancient Egypt.
All in all, a most enjoyable and compelling read, and I look forward to other books by Anna, including a follow-up novel based in ancient Egypt that she mentions at the end of this book.
To track down Asenath, Michal’s Window, or indeed In a Milk and Honeyed Land, search on Amazon or other online retailers. All three are available in both electronic and physical formats.