Sarah by Marek Halter. Review by S.K. Slevinski
In the first of a trilogy of historical fiction novels that explore the lives of Biblical matriarchs, Marek Halter tells the life story of Sarah, the wife of Abraham, from girlhood to old age.
As this book opens, Sarai (only renamed Sarah in her old age) is a young woman in the ancient city of Ur, and the daughter of a high ranking official. She struggles with her recently blossomed womanhood because of the burden that comes with it—her father must arrange a marriage for her with one of the powerful gentlemen of the city ranks. She is overwhelmed with anxiety and dread at the betrothal ceremony and flees into the streets of Ur. It is there she has a chance encounter with Abram (also renamed Abraham only in old age), a young man from a nomadic tribe that makes the rounds of the major Mesopotamian and Middle Eastern cities, offering his family's services as skilled sculptors of temple statues. Sarai, predictably enough, falls in love with Abram during this first encounter. However, the city authorities discover her outside the gates and she is brought back to her father to meet with his sanctions for her running away, and to face the prospect of a new betrothal. Sarai, however, plans to return to Abram's tribe outside the city, convinced that the memory of one kiss from him will preserve her through the trials of marriage to a man she does not care for. However, when she manages one day to sneak out again, she finds his tribe has left. Within the encampment of tribes still outside the city, however, she finds an old woman with a knowledge of herbal medicines. She requests an herb of infertility in the hopes of making herself unmarriageable.
The tricky thing with this book, or any with a similar premise, is that most of the audience—presuming most are members of Western culture who have not been living in isolation since birth—already knows how this story will go. The story of Abraham, the first recipient of monotheistic revelation in the largest Western and Middle Eastern faith traditions, is so prevalent that even those who slept through most Bible classes or Sunday schools are bound to know it anyway. How to make an engaging story out of a known result is Halter's task in this book. He is most successful in the first half of the book. His portrayal of the young Sarai and her story is only sometimes predictable, and he paints the city of Ur and its culture in intriguing, but not weighty detail. This story loses steam in the second half of the book, however, where Halter must, increasingly, weave plotlines into his story that are out of his hands. Perhaps such a result is inevitable in the retelling of one of the most famous stories ever told. As Sarai struggles with her infertility and Abram leads his tribe across the desert sands following the revelation of his God, the story becomes burdened by Biblical details. In what freedom of creativity he has in the later parts of the book, Halter also makes some predictable choices. Sarai's jealousy of Abram's concubine Hagar is especially unsurprising and her emotions in this part of the story could have been handled, in my opinion, in a more intriguing and ambiguous way.
Despite the eventual—and perhaps inevitable—predictability of the plotline, this book will be worth a read to many booklovers. Fans of historical and fantasy fiction will appreciate the otherworldly details of this ancient world that is well-researched by Halter.
S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.