This is the second of what will be a trilogy of historical novels focused on the daughters of the 11th Century French Jewish sage Rabbi Sholomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi. I reviewed the first book here. The third book is expected to come out next year.
I was particularly intrigued to read Miriam's story because my friend L., who recommended the books to me, said that it's slash. And I think for some values of "slash" it is indeed.
There are two major intertwined plots in this novel, representing Miriam's professional story and the more personal story of her relationship with her husband and of his struggles with his sexuality. In both cases, the plots are inventions of the author, but appear to be carefully grounded - for the most part - in historical reality.
Anton's Miriam is the midwife for the Jewish community of Troyes, where Rashi raised his family. In the first book she is seen as the apprentice and eventual successor to the current midwife, her aunt. Miriam's mother's sister is twice widowed and with one grown child. So with no family of her own to care for, she has time to help the women of her community through childbirth and various physical ailments. And with no daughter to teach her profession to, she takes on her sister's second child, with Miriam beginning her apprenticeship at age 12 in the first book, and beginning to independently attend births five years later as her aunt's health deteriorates. Midwifery in the medieval French Jewish community was a fascinating mix of skill, knowledge and rank superstition, and Anton portrays it vividly, with detailed descriptions of a variety of births (and some deaths). Miriam's profession takes her to women throughout the community and gives the reader glimpses into various families and their struggles and joys. Over time, Miriam decides to try to become the community's first mohelet (feminine version of "mohel" - the word for someone who performs ritual circumcision), when there is no young man willing and able to take on that role.
As with Joheved in the first book, Miriam is portrayed as someone who steps out of gender roles in some ways but follows them carefully in most of her life. Her work as a midwife is squarely within expectations for a woman while her mohelet work is pioneering. She studies Talmud at a time when that was considered scandalous by many(a visiting scholar sees Joheved and Miriam studying together and embarrasses them by quoting a sage who said that anyone who teaches a woman talmud teaches her lewdness. It is the visiting scholar who is later embarrassed when he finds out it is the Rosh Yeshiva's daughters he had so disparaged). But she also tries to be a dutiful wife and mother under difficult circumstances.
The difficult circumstances include the death of her first love and her subsequent marriage to a man who has no sexual interest in women. In Book I, Miriam was in love with one of her father's students, and had become engaged to him. He dies early in Book II. Engagement being considered almost equivalent to marriage at the time, she is deemed a widow. After undergoing halitza she is free to marry again, and soon is betrothed to another of her father's students: Judah ben Natan.
Judah is someone who - by our modern standards - never should have married Miriam. He knows that he is not sexually attracted to women, attributing that lack to his focus on Torah. Only it's not just Torah he's focussed on, but also some of his fellow students. His attraction to men is something he's only dimly aware of as the character is introduced, but over time he becomes well aware of his feelings and also aware that there are other men who would be glad to introduce him to the hidden, but active world of homoerotic pleasure.
Judah's homosexuality is entirely Anton's invention, but there is no doubt that there were many men at the time in his position and the internal conflict it causes him is very real. Observant Jews of that time and place (and many to this day) saw sexual activity between men as forbidden and one act in particular - known as mishkav zakhor - a capital crime. That act (male/male anal intercourse, although interestingly, Anton never says just what miskav zakhor is, and I'm not sure that a reader who didn't know would necessarily figure it out, at least right away) was viewed as toevah - abomination - and homosexually oriented men dealt with their desires in a variety of ways. Some practiced mishkav zakhor when away from their wives; some engaged in other m/m sexual practices but avoided that particular one; some abstained from sex with men altogether (with greater or lesser success).
All of those ways of dealing with homosexual orientation are still current among gay Orthodox men (I show one gay Orthodox teenager coming to terms with his homosexuality in modern times in my story As He Loved His Own Soul). Judah is portrayed as struggling with his nature for much of the book, but never experiences sex with a man. Eventually he promises G-d that he won't even think about sex with men, which results in the end of all sexual expression in his marriage, since he is unable to have sex with Miriam except by imagining himself with a man.
I enjoyed this book very much, as I did the first. As I did the first I also have some problems with it. I found some of the sex in the first book unrealistic and found some of its lack in this book unrealistic. I found it hard to believe that Judah, who is very strongly attracted to men and has many men propositioning him, never once has a sexual experience with another man. I didn't find it completely beyond credibility, but I thought it would have been more believable if he'd had a few lapses. In addition, that he and Miriam do not have penetrative sex for a year after they're married and don't know that they're not doing so, would be more believable for another woman.
Their wedding night scene is quite poignant - Judah doesn't know what to do and didn't ask anyone for explanations since his new wife is a widow, so he figured she'd know. She explains that she was widowed during the betrothal and still a virgin and doesn't really know what to do either. They end up doing nothing sexual then but at some time later engage in some frottage and think they're "doing it." It's not until a year goes by and Miriam is still not pregnant that she goes to her aunt for help and finds out that she is a virgin. I found this circumstance sad and touching, but it would have been more believable if Miriam were not a midwife, a profession that made her very familiar with female anatomy as well as privy to lots of sex talk from her clients.
Another element that seemed less than realistic to me was the way Anton portrays homosexual subculture. She has clearly done significant historical research but modern American sensibilities intrude, in spite of her best efforts. Characters are often signaled to be gay because of their appearance (with stereotypical North American 20th and 21st century ideas of what gay appearance would be) or interests (one homosexually inclined character is very interested in interior decorating). And she portrays a medieval French tavern that almost comically resembles a modern gay bar, at least a modern gay bar as seen in a made-for-TV movie.
Those moments are unintentionally funny, but don't really detract from the book as a whole. A little more troubling to me is the way Judah's "triumph" over his homosexual inclination is depicted. Judah and Miriam reconcile themselves to a marriage - and to lives - without sexual satisfaction. That's a tragedy for them both but it's presented as wholly positive. I understand that their religious beliefs would lead them both to feel that a sexless life is preferable to one with homosexual expression, but people who make these kinds of accommodations to homophobic religion generally do so with great pain and sadness, and it has consequences for many aspects of their lives. I think it would have been a better book if some of those consequences had been explored and some of that pain had been clearly depicted.
So, ultimately, it's not my dream medieval French Jewish slash novel. That said, it's an absorbing portrayal of intriguing characters. Other than the few exceptions noted, it gave me the feeling I want to get from historical fiction, the feeling of being totally transformed into a different time and place. And it made me eager to read the third book when it comes out.