Wednesday, April 07, 2010

REVIEW: The Throne in the Heart of the Sea

The Throne in the Heart of the Sea, a novel, by Martha Shelley (Ebisu Publications 2010), trade paperback, 344 pp.

Martha Shelley's spell-binding novel, The Throne in the Heart of the Sea, brings to life the people and customs of the 9th Century BCE Middle East. It presents an alternative view of such biblical characters as Jezebel and the prophet Elijah, and introduces a character invented by Shelley, Tamar (there are at list 2 Tamars in the Bible, but the one in this book is not meant to be them.)

Though Shelley did extensive research to make sure the novel reflected the ambiance of Canaan/Phoenicia and the "northern kingdom" of Israel, she avoided using the stilted language some authors of historical novels use in an attempt to reflect ancient times. Instead, she has written the book in today's American English while retaining some of the terms used in the ancient near east. In fact, the characters' narrative gets, at times, downright slangy and some characters, reflecting their lower education level, speak in ungrammatical English. For me, this makes the novel even more alive and relevant.

Shelley is also a published poet, and her inventive use of language, especially in descriptions, is one of the joys of this book for me. For example, on the first page of the novel, she writes of Tamar: "She leaped up and shrugged into her dress."

Shelley not only brings to life the people, but also the smells and tastes of the middle east in the 9th Century BCE. She describes so you can almost taste them, various foods, and sometimes even uses food as a simile or metaphor to describe people's characteristics. For example, in the first chapter, she describes an Assyrian sailor: "His face was round as a plate with huge eyes like fried eggs, lips like slices of raw beef." A few pages later the sailor gives Tamar "a big fried-egg wink." The voice of another character is "as bitter as poppy juice." Later in the book, a character's aptitude for math is described: "She slid through the most difficult math problems as though they'd been greased with lamb fat...."

We first meet the main characters, Tamar, Jezebel, and Elijah when they are young teens, which at that time was on the verge of adulthood. Tamar is of mixed Cushite and Israelite parentage, living in Old Tyre on the mainland. Jezebel is a princess and appears to be heir to the throne of her father, King Ittobaal of Tyre, a Canaanite city on an island off the coast of Canaan and Old Tyre. Elijah is an angry young Israelite living in Tishbe.

Tamar's grandmother is a healer and worker of magic, and Tamar follows her on her rounds, much of which deal with women's health. Tamar's family follows the code of hospitality, a middle east custom of that time in which families that have food and lodging are obligated to share it with travelers in need.

Jezebel, upset at the attention given to her new baby brother, a likely competitor for her father's throne, disguises herself as one of the palace servant girls, Ziphia, and runs away to Old Tyre with her servant eunuch, Mattan, who assumes a false identity of being "Ziphia's" brother. Experiencing what it's like not to be protected royalty and in need of food and lodging, "Ziphia" and Mattan are taken in by Tamar's family. But living as a non-royal isn't easy and soon the princess and her servant return to the palace.

Meanwhile, in Tishbe, Elijah is killing birds for food, evading enemy soldiers, and seeking revenge for his father's death in the war. Elijah falls in love, but the young woman, alas, is to marry another man. Drunk, Elijah kills him and flees from Tishbe to Tyre, where he goes by the name Ilyas, the Arabic equivalent of Elijah (Eliahu, in Hebrew). Much is made of Elijah's drinking, especially wine, and I couldn't help but wonder if this is Shelley's ironic joke related to the post-biblical custom of setting out a glass of wine for Elijah during the Passover seder. To add to the irony, Ilyas meets Tamar at a wine shop her mother has established on Tyre, where the family has moved after being dispossessed of their land in Old Tyre.

Shelley portrays Elijah observing the Goddess Asherah's birthday:

The next holiday was the birthday of Asherah, Queen of Heaven. Elijah was pleased to find it celebrated here just as it was in Israel. The smell of baking woke him, and when he left the house the streets overflowed with women carrying trays of triangular cakes to the shrines.
Both Jezebel and Tamar are described as praying to Asherah. But while Jezebel becomes a priestess of Asherah, Tamar becomes a priestess of ‘Anat. She enters the school at the temple of ‘Anat following a celebration of her first menstruation because she wants to learn to be a scribe rather than apprenticing to her grandmother and learning to be a healer. But when Tamar takes the entrance exam, the ‘Anat priestess testing her uncovers Tamar's medical knowledge (and comparative lack of ability in some other areas, like math) so her admission to be trained as a scribe is conditional on her also studying medicine because the community needs people with medical training. (I really identified with this part, as I was educated as a writer/journalist but after college was pulled into medical/health writing. Plus, I was terrible in math.)

Elijah/Ilyas discovers he has a talent for making perfumes and becomes a perfumer in the court of King Ittobaal, where he meets and falls for Jezebel. After her ordination as priestess of ‘Anat, Tamar again meets the young woman she knows as Ziphia, now, following her family tradition, a priestess of Asherah. They are strongly attracted to each other and after they become lovers, "Ziphia" reveals her true identity, but Tamar thinks she is joking.

Okay, we're about half way through the book so I better stop telling you about the plot because I don't want to spoil it for you (and so have left out some juicy tidbits in the chapters discussed). But it is such a good novel, I couldn't resist sharing this much with you.

The Throne in the Heart of the Sea is also enriched by:
–Poems and song lyrics at the beginning of each chapter and scattered throughout the novel, translated into English from their original ancient languages, with Shelley rewriting them so that their diction is more contemporary.
–Maps of Tyre, Jezebel's World, and Tamar's Journeys by Emeline Mann Sanchez.
–Reproduction of the Seal of Jezebel, now stored in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, redrawn by Max Dashu from a "tiny photograph" Shelley brought back from Israel .
–Glossary of terms from mostly ancient Middle East languages.
–Chart of calendars comparing Canaanite, Babylonian, and Roman months.
–Shelley's Afterword, with historical information and a summary of the biblical portrayal of these characters. Shelley concludes:
Elijah's partisans wrote the story in the Bible and, I believe, slandered Jezebel. The annals of Tyre were destroyed. What remains are the histories of their neighbors, some archeological evidence, and what we can surmise from the customs of modern Levantines. I have assembled my tale from these. It is fiction, but no more so than some of the Biblical tales. It is what might have been.
Martha Shelley is a long-time spiritual feminist who has published essays, short stories, poetry, and a feminist Passover haggadah, Haggadah: A Celebration of Freedom. Before she moved to the West Coast, she was one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front in New York City.

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