Sunday, April 05, 2015

Book Review: THE TOMB: A NOVEL OF MARTHA

Title: The Tomb: A Novel of Martha
Author: Stephanie Landsem
Publisher: Howard Books
Pages: 352









Having read The Thief during Holy Week last year, I knew in advance what a treat The Tomb would turn out to be. That is why even though I had a copy of this book, I saved the reading of it to coincide with Holy Week again. Experience has taught me how much Stephanie Landsem’s books can enhance the Lenten experience.

Here Stephanie lets us understand the Bible through the experience of Martha, Mary and Lazarus.

At 17, Martha is still unmarried. Her father, Sirach, a righteous man himself, is determined to marry her off to the most righteous man he can find. When younger sister Mary is married at 15, it sets tongues wagging. Sirach has allowed Mary to choose her husband, Josiah, a poor man, but he would never let Martha marry the man she loves, Isa, a pagan. At her sister’s wedding feast, Martha loses her innocence to Isa.

In a moment she gives in to passion, but thereafter there is only despair. For Isa is either dead or has deserted her. Seven years after Mary’s wedding, Sirach is dead, Lazarus is the head of the household and Martha is wrapped up in guilt and agony at the thought of having hastened her father to his grave.

But the truth is that Isa has been tortured by demons for seven long years. Through his madness, he remembers that someone is waiting for him. He is healed by Jesus, and commanded to tell his family what the Lord has done for him. Meanwhile, Simon, a very righteous Pharisee, makes an offer of marriage to Martha. He wishes to redeem the shame that is his even after his leprosy was cured. But how can Martha give her assent and keep her secret?

When Lazarus makes a decision to follow Jesus, his desire to provide for Martha, and the other members of the family, induces him to arrange a betrothal between her and Simon. Martha confesses to Simon, but his righteousness is hypocritical.

Simon agrees to the marriage in spite of knowing Martha’s secret, that she is an unwed mother of a little boy, Zakai. In return he asks that she remain honourable and obedient to him and have nothing to do with Jesus.

When Lazarus takes ill, everyone advises her to call Jesus to heal him. But Simon threatens that he will reveal her secret if she does so. Will Martha choose the better part or will she continue to remain imprisoned in her guilt and fear?

Words like kinnor, ketubah, amphorae add colour to the narrative. The similes and metaphors are also uniquely of that time. For example, Martha feels “like a pot left too long over the fire.” Josiah’s mother describes him as “about as useful as a three-legged donkey.” A character’s laugh is described as “as dry as parchment.” The same character also “harrumphed like a constipated camel.” Another’s voice is “like a rusty knife.” It is a treat to find these similes scattered in the descriptions.



The description of Simon’s storeroom is a treat to the senses, while that of Isa’s demonic possession is stark and harsh.

Stephanie’s stories are steeped in the milieu. Not a note appears out of place. Reading her words transports you to Jesus’ time in Israel and immerses you totally in the era. If anyone of us has wondered what life must have been like for Martha and her siblings, here is the story. Because Martha is a very good cook, you get a taste, a whiff and a flavour of the culinary culture of the time.

The narrative is suffused with the little details. The food that Martha cooks, the taxes imposed by the Romans, Jesus’ love for children, the type of houses that were built then, the distinctions that existed between people then, the hypocrisies practised by the Pharisees, they all build and buttress the story.


These details make the story come alive and reveal Stephanie's fluency with the Bible. It is a story that has stayed with her, and grown richer and thicker, not unlike the cumin sauce that is Martha’s speciality, which gets better the longer it cooks.

Martha is a woman with a crisis of faith. She is not allowed to choose her husband and she will not choose Jesus as her Messiah.

Penina, the mute slave that Martha has freed, has her own back story, one that involves a lack of faith and hardship.

Each chapter begins with a verse from the Proverbs or the Psalms and pertains to the story that follows. The story is based on the Bible and Stephanie embellishes them with the detail. So well does she infuse her story with fictional elements that one is taken aback when one receives evidence of just how closely it is based on the four Gospels.

The narrative alternates between Martha and Isa, even as the pace gets faster. Jesus is not the main character in this story. For the greater part, you see Him as others see Him. And you feel a quickening of the pulse as you get to see that sight. You can sense Stephanie’s faith through the manner in which those that have been touched by Jesus whisper his name.

Places that we read of in the Bible come alive. Stephanie reveals a deft hand as she throws light on Jewish religious practices, the morning tradition, the ritual purification of the vessels and the body.

The details from the Bible are present, and form the base of the story. Jesus dining at the home of the Pharisee, Lazarus being raised from the dead, Jesus dining at the home of Lazarus, Martha complaining while Mary spends time with Jesus, and being admonished that Mary has chosen “the better part.” Fiction and fact are married together in a manner that enhances both.

There is a parallel with the story of Esther from the Old Testament, who has the ability to save her people or risk her own life and that of others.

Stephanie piles on the conflict and the tension relentlessly, taking both Martha and Isa to a point where all earthly alternatives are lost and there is no option but to rely on God. It is a familiar theme, one that the author has used to telling effect in The Thief, a familiarity that brings comfort.

The author has repeated some motifs. The dead caterpillar out of Zakai’s animal menagerie, now ensconced in a cocoon, as against Lazarus’s own death and restoration, and the final, culminating act in this great human-divine drama, the crucifixion and death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus.

I lost a very beloved uncle on March 31, so this book which reiterates Jesus’ words to Martha, “I am the resurrection. I am the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,” brought a great deal of comfort while simultaneously bolstering my faith. Seeing Martha struggle with her own doubts, seeing Mary’s strong faith crumble after her prayers are not answered, and seeing a renewed Martha continue to doubt reminded me of the gamut of stages through which faith must pass as it gets ever stronger. It also helped me understand how ultimately it is very simple to have strong faith. As Jesus says, “one must just choose the better part.”



The Tomb is ultimately about the tombs in which we knowingly or unknowingly find ourselves in, and how it is possible to break free of them.



Read this book: I recommend it very highly.




4 comments:

  1. wonderful analogy of "way to live and faith" with this book. Your faith on Christ, also, gets reflected in an obvious manner. And faith is what would row us from this to the other side.

    Do visit my blogs too, if you can.

    www.commentaryofheart.blogspot.com

    www.amarnathmishra.blogspot.com

    The 2nd one is a synthesis of my poems.

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  2. Thank you. Yes, faith is what we need to get us through. Without it, we flounder and fail. Look forward to catching up on your blogs.

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  3. Cynthia, Thank you for sharing your review with me. It is one of the most beautiful reviews I've seen for The Tomb and I cherish it. I'm glad you noticed and appreciated the more technical aspects of writing biblical fiction, such as using appropriate similes! And of course, I love it that Martha spoke to you, especially after a death in your family. I lost my father as I finished the last edits on The Tomb and found comfort in Jesus' words. Easter blessings on you and yours and thank you again for sharing The Tomb with your readers.

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  4. Thank you, Stephanie, for appreciating my review. I wish I were a part of your critique group. I would have loved the opportunity to witness your writing process and to see how you translate your vibrant faith on to your manuscript and make it a living thing that moves so many others. My decision to save the book for Holy Week paid off again this year. Thank you for writing this wonderful book. God bless you.

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