My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Wife of John The Baptist is not likely to be what readers expect, and for the most part, that is a good thing. I found myself disappointed by a couple of things, but that should not stop readers from giving this novel a try.
The story is told through Hessa, the daughter of a Greek merchant and a young woman with an extraordinary gift. When she touches something, she can tell about more than its authenticity and quality. She knows its history. When she touches the hands of others, she knows if they are honest or if something is troubling them. Her ability is useful to her father, who dotes on her, and encourages her with tales of his adventures.
When a mysterious young traveler named John appears in town, Hessa's life changes dramatically. Before long, he has won her heart and she marries him against her father's wishes. There is passionate honeymoon, and then she joins John in his wandering.
They seek solitude, partly so John can be alone with God, but it seems mostly so John can avoid people who are all too ready to make him the prophet his father said he would be. But after they lose their first child, John decides to take on disciples and live in community so that Hessa will have a proper midwife for her next pregnancies.
Eventually, John succumbs to the pressure of becoming a prophet. The problem is that several factions are seeking him as a leader against the hated Romans, and John does not believe a revolution can come by armed force. He does discover some sort of power in baptism and begins to perform them in the Jordan. It is then that John's pronouncement against Herod's marriage to his brother's wife gets him into trouble.
Though there is a surprising lack of sensory details, this is still a very interesting story, not just about John and his bride, but about the people and politics of this time. I had trouble putting it down. The characters are well-drawn and authentic. And John and Hessa's love for each is not just the passionate attraction of two young people, but romance that builds rather than wanes as they get older. For me, this made the story richer and more satisfying.
While a novelist does not have any obligation to stick to every particular of history, especially a history many prefer to believe, I am not thrilled with some of the deviations and omissions from John's story. John's purpose to announce the arrival of the Messiah is completely ignored, and Jesus is relegated to a single, brief sentence, where John is said to have been "very impressed with him." Readers will also find differences between K.Ford K.'s portrait and the Biblical account. Most of these are minor, but I suspect those looking for something to solidify their beliefs will be disconcerted.
I was also disappointed with the ending, not because it isn't "happy," but because it seems to all too mystical where little hint of such is provided by the story. The reincarnation angle seems to give the novel a more Hollywood ending than the reader would expect.
These problems do not detract completely from the story itself, but I must confess most of them troubled me. However, this novel is gratifying, and its challenges should not put off good readers.