After avidly devouring Christian Jacq’s novels as a teenager, no other book set in ancient Egypt could grab my attention long enough for me to finish reading it. So when I was asked to review The God’s Wife, I was very hesitant, knowing that I would be extremely biased against it and might give the author a negative review she would not deserve.
I needn’t have worried; as it turns out, I could not put this book down. I was hooked from the first page of the preface, where the author takes the time to set her story (and you know the read will be good when you are hooked at the preface). In fact, I have author Lynn Voedisch to thank for depleting my already dwindling stock of concealer, as I read her book twice in a row in the span of a week. As you can imagine, I did not get a lot of sleep and looked like I climbed straight out of Pharaoh’s tomb.
Part of The God’s Wife is set in one of the most fascinating times in ancient history, further enhanced by Lynn Voedisch’s captivating writing style. Furthermore, her descriptions make Ancient Egypt jump out of the pages with no long-winded descriptions weighing the plot down. I was particularly struck by the way the smell of the gardens seemed to pour out of the pages at times: “At the Pharaoh’s royal garden, a graceful woman appeared on the bridge over the pond of blue lotus blooms and preening ibis. A small fountain dribbled water channeled from the Great River, and all about grew the most elegant plants that a royal gardener could obtain. Lilies and jasmine sweetened the dry air — hot as the breath of a fevered lover. Vines snaked along the bridge railings. Trailing flowers sprang from trellises all about the fecund square. A fish plunked in the lake, a bird reached out his graceful beak, and then there was silence.” Paragraphs such as these interweave the magic of Ancient Egypt tightly to the plot.
But amidst this magic can be found deadly intrigue, and Princess Neferet, one of the book’s protagonists, is caught in the middle of it. As the god’s wife, she is the second most important figure in the kingdom; being bathed in such prestige makes Neferet the target of jealousy and danger as she becomes a pawn in a bid to Pharaoh’s throne. Similarly, bathed in the prestige of being the star dancer in an upcoming dance production, Rebecca, the book’s second protagonist, also becomes the target of jealousy and danger. These two strong women, separated by time and space, must each learn to take their rightful places.
At first, the link between them seems flimsy, to say the least: both women are being undermined and don’t know who to trust; Neferet’s duties as god’s wife include dancing, and the production Rebecca is starring in is set in Ancient Egypt. But as the plot thickens, so does said link, which culminates into something much stronger and deeper than either they could deny or I would have guessed. And thanks to Voedisch’s writing, a story that could have been easily confusing flowed impeccably.
The idea of flashing between Ancient Egypt and modern day Chicago could have been done in the most awkward of ways, but Voedisch pulls it off brilliantly. Not only does she have some powerful imagery to use to create seamless transitions (dancing is used a couple of times), but the author uses language that works in both settings, thus decreasing jarring transitions between a heavy English associated with old times and a lighter version of the language liberally sprinkled with slang and swear words. Another trap deftly avoided by the author is to not overemphasize Ancient Egyptian rituals, only describing them to the extent they needed, such as: “Like fleet-footed beings of the night, the priests left. Closing the door behind them, they abandoned her with this husband of rock. In the moment his jewel eyes fastened onto hers, she knew her life was no longer her own. She began the ritual dance,” which transitions immediately to “Jump, two, three, pas de bourée, lunge, leap. Jump, two, three, preparation, pirouette. Forward, five, six, seven, side lay-out. Jump,” Rebecca’s dance session.
To the plot is added another layer of depth as Voedisch interweaves questions about faith and belief to the story. Neferet, under attack from the day she is announced as being the god’s wife, can’t help but question the very reason for her position. This question of faith is addressed in a way that encourages reflection without forcing an opinion: “…Neferet had felt her faith shaken. Each day, she believed less of what the priests told her and more of what her senses told her. She was a performer, a figurehead for the people to admire. As wife to Amun, they presumed she had secret knowledge of the workings of the universe. Yet, she probably knew less than anyone.”
It doesn’t mean that some measure of an answer is not provided, as Neferet’s quest to finding the meaning of faith is rewarded by moments of clear understanding, such as: “She … reflected on how childish these ministrations seemed in the beginning. With time, she began to learn from the … chief priest Nebhotep that the Amun idol became a living — but not flesh-and-blood — entity due to the precise spells and incantations that had been handed down for millennia. The changing of the clothes and the uneaten food (devoured later by the priests) was ceremonial, an indication the people recognized the reality of Amun’s presence among them.” Such moments of understanding, even in a fictional setting, are very timely at a period in history when people are searching for the meaning of truth, faith and life itself.
The quest for one’s true self is intimately tied to that of faith; this quest is one that anyone, at any age and at any time in history, can identify with. Again, I love the way Lynn touches upon this topic and other related ones head on without delving into page-long stifling monologues. It is as if she is scattering seeds for future reflection, seeds that are watered with the plot’s twists and turns.
For example, Neferet contemplates the meaning of life: “… Neferet went through her routine… There was something missing, and she could feel the hollow in her heart. … She lacked the sense that comes from a deep knowing of self. Could it be her role existed merely to dance, appease a stone god and be appropriate bait for the next Pharaoh? Her life must be worth more than that.” Similarly, the lacking happiness of life weighs Neferet down despite the riches she has and the position she holds as the second most powerful person in the kingdom: “She remembered Nebhotep’s words as she left the chamber, ‘Thanks to his Ba, a person is happy on earth.’ She closed the doors with a tentative touch, full of doubt and conflicted feelings about her religion, wondering just how happy she really felt right now.” How many of us go about our day to day routine, wondering these very same things? However, Voedisch doesn’t go on and on about this topic, but rather, her protagonist, through her actions, makes sense of her life, by reaching out and attempting to create justice herself. This subtle message of empowerment is deftly entwined in the pages of the book.