(This article was originally posted on my other blog, Watts Up With Rhonda, about three years ago and labeled as a review, but it’s not really a straight-up review, hence my calling it an “exploration.” I decided to post it here because Tosca Lee just released a new novel about the Queen of Sheba, which I can’t wait to read, and I was reminded of this book. This is an amazing book and I’m planning to reread it, so I dug up this old piece that I wrote about it. Enjoy!)
This re-imagining of a biblical tale is, at its heart, the story of God’s relentless love for humanity.
When an author novelizes an already well-known story, especially one as ingrained in both secular and Church culture as that of the world’s first woman, she takes a huge risk. Virtually every reader who picks up the book will have preconceived ideas about Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, original sin, and primeval history that they’ll, consciously or sub-, be expecting to see verified. This is the risk that Tosca Lee has taken withher novel Havah: the Story of Eve.
In her author’s note, Lee acknowledges the familiarity most readers already have with the story and explains her choice to use the characters’ Hebrew names in an effort to distance her retelling from our expectations. Eve becomes Havah, though Adam’s name stays the same, and their sons become Kayin (Cain), Hevel (Abel), and Shet (Seth).
The beginning of the novel introduces a problem: how do you describe a place that only two people in the history of the world have ever seen? Lee’s solution is rather simple: there isn’t a whole lot of description, and I think that was the right choice. Describing the Garden of Eden would be like trying to describe Heaven, though to a lesser degree: too prone to cliché and abstract to be really satisfying. It is enough to know that it is a perfect place, where the relationships between God and human, man and woman, are pure and untainted, honest and beautiful. Just enough of this state of perfection is shown to make us feel the loss of it.
The point at which the story changes from that of two people and their Creator in Paradise to that of the world as we know it is, of course, the Fall. This is really the climax of the novel, though it is only 60 pages in. Up until now, we have only been given glimpses of the woman’s desire for knowledge and understanding of God and snatches of her conversations with the mysterious serpent, who seems to be the only other creature who has the same curiosity that she does; it is this curiosity and desire for knowledge that in the end motivate her to eat of the tree.
But I couldn’t understand, solely based on the content of the novel, why two people who have a literally perfect life would so easily go against the wishes and warnings of the One who gave them life. Of course I know that Adam and Eve did sin, but if I hadn’t known the story before reading the book, the book wouldn’t have convinced me.
If the build-up was slightly lacking, though, Lee makes up for it in the riveting moment itself. In the novel, as in the Genesis account, the man is present the whole time for that fateful scene—he witnesses the woman’s conversation with the serpent and sees her grapple with the decision to eat the fruit. He even almost encourages her to sin in the fictional account, putting the decision for both of them into her hands and saying, “We are one flesh. We live or die the death together.”
That’s probably not exactly how it went down, but it is effective in showing that the blame for the first sin is shared equally between the two genders. Gender equality is something that Lee acknowledges in her author’s note was important for her to show in the novel, an equality “designed by God, recorded by the Genesis author and influenced—for good or ill—by the world.”
The man and woman’s equality is marred by the Fall—though still equal, they can never understand each other the way they used to. This state of misunderstanding unfolds with gradual heartbreaking realization, their separation from each other almost as devastating as their exile from the Garden and the continual, tangible presence of their beloved Creator. The lightning storm and earthquake that accompany their flight from the Garden are the violent physical manifestation of the breaking heart of God.
The remaining three quarters of the novel in a way function as a fictionalized account of the first thousand years of human history. It’s fascinating to watch the development of human invention, to see the advancement of ideas and technology in agriculture, in writing, in metal working and city-building. But through it all there is woven a thread of darkness, the shadow of the Fall. This darkness is witnessed in Kayin’s murder of his brother Hevel and in the barriers it places between Kayin and his family. The darkness is also seen much later when people begin to corrupt the worship of the One true God, and even to worship false gods.
Havah never forgets that the world is not as it should be, and that it was her decision that made it that way. But she also never gives up hope that the world will be restored. In a dream near the end of the novel she has a glimpse of how that restoration is to come about: she watches as an animal sacrifice burns on the altar, then changes into a man, “Adam made new. As I stare, he plucks from the shrub the small fruit,” the fruit of the tree that gives eternal life.
Image: “Michelangelo Buonarroti 022” by Michelangelo Buonarroti – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michelangelo_Buonarroti_022.jpg#/media/File:Michelangelo_Buonarroti_022.jpg