Monday, December 1, 2008

The Triumph of Deborah

by Eva Etzioni-Halevy
Plume Books
Review by Melissa

Historical fiction based on Biblical stories is an iffy thing. There's not much actual history about the time periods when it takes place, at least not the sort that gives you detailed information about what particular people were doing. Most writers just tend to use their imagination about the situations surrounding the Biblical account, discarding the historical information, such as it is. In this case, the account is that of Deborah, the prophetess (her story is found in Judges, if you're interested). She was one of the few females to be in a leadership role in the patriarchal Israelite society, filling the role of judge in Israel. It's not as well-known to me, at least, as some of the other women's stories in the Bible, and for this reason I was intrigued by this book. Etzioni-Halevy tells Deborah's story, weaving it in with the story of her army commander, Barak. He follows her command, and goes to war against the Canaanites, defeating them soundly. He frees all the Israelite slaves and takes the Canaanite women as prisoners. In the throng are two half-sisters, Nogah and Asherah. It's these two women who form a love triangle with Barak, and eventually shape the events between the Israelite nation and the Canaanite kings.

My usual complaint about fictionalized accounts of Biblical stories is that they feel too modern. The women are too empowered, the men too sensitive. I figure that the people in Biblical times would never have really have acted that way; women's empowerment and men's finding their inner selves is a modern phenomena. Fortunately, Etzioni-Halevy's book doesn't have that problem. Having had a career as a professor, Etzioni-Halevy knows how to do her research, and how to present a more plausible portrayal of the time period. While the women were influential, and possibly could even be called powerful, they didn't feel modern, instead working within the limitations that Israelite and Canaanite society placed on them. I appreciated that.

However, for a book entitled The Triumph of Deborah, it really wasn't much about her. She appeared in the beginning to get the plot moving, somewhere in the middle she had sex with Barak and in the end she reconciled with her husband and pushed for peace with the Canaanites. But the book wasn't about her. It was more about Barak and his journey to redemption and centeredness and his conflicts with women, including Deborah, than it was about Deborah's influence and power. I was expecting something more along the lines of, say, Orson Scott Card's Women of Genesis series or The Red Tent, where the focus is more on how the women interact with the heavily male society. Sure, that probably would have made Deborah into a more modern character than she really was, but I think Etzioni-Halevy missed out on an opportunity to explore the motivations and conflicts surrounding Deborah being a prophetess in a male-dominated society. Instead, Deborah was benevolent and beloved, and possibly respected, but very uninteresting.

In addition to not having my expectations about the book met, the main characters -- Barak especially -- drove me nuts. I kept reminding myself that he was a premodern Israelite male, which is why he was sexist, uncaring and misogynistic; but honestly, I wanted to throttle him. It didn't help that he was a sex fiend: he repeatedly made love to all three of the female leads, in addition to countless maids. Basically, if it had two legs and boobs, he was after it. And then he hits the roof when he finds out his One True Love had sex with another man (historically accurate, sure, but hypocritical and annoying nonetheless). Then there was the actual sex itself. Ahem. Let's just say that not since Larry McMurty's Lonesome Dove have I read a book that contained so many memorable -- and amusing -- euphemisms for the penis and for intercourse. I suppose some people have found it moving and passionate, but I was mostly rolling my eyes and sniggering. Granted, it made for some *cough* entertaining *cough* pillow conversations with my husband, so I suppose it did do what it was supposed to do.

In the end, that was what bothered me the most about the book: it was essentially a Harlequin Romance disguised as a Bible story when it could have been so much more. And while I can see the appeal of that to some, for me it was a real turn off. Pun is (probably) intended.


Wendy said...

I agree with your review - I don't think the sex scenes were meant to be funny, but I found myself laughing out loud at times :)

Bookfool said...

Yikes. I've got this one on the TBRs and if there is one thing that drives me bazonkers it's graphic sex. I've thought about having a drawing and just letting someone else review it, but I guess that's a bit of a cop-out. :)