Romanian-born bestseller Petru Popescu imagines the girlhood of Jesus’s mother in this European-flavored literary work. We first see the tall young woman through the eyes of a Roman who turns out to be Pontius Pilate, sent by his emperor to find the prophesied mother of God to give his imperial claim a boost of divinity. Mary and her family have fled from (rather gratuitous, it seems to me) civil strife in their native Nazareth to be caretakers of a desert well Mary herself discovers through inspiration. Mary then leads her people back to reclaim their homes and she her Joseph—who is too representative a woodcarver to suit my idea of a first-century Jew.
I really wanted Pilate to be the Roman soldier Panthera whom early anti-Christian writers claimed was the true father of a bastard Jesus. In spite of Mary’s visceral experience seeing young women stoned for not being intact virgins at their weddings, I was all set up for that cynical revelation—and other things—but no such riddles are solved in this literary book. The novel often seems more grounded in modern existential circles than first-century Palestine—not necessarily a bad interpretation. The language rings foreign, which adds to the exotic flavor, but sometimes slips into anachronism. Networked? A wire fence? Copperhead snake? Anna’s dyeing work is wondrously portable—no stink, no vats—and lucrative. People are always “jumping” onto horses and “galloping” impossible distances. We have candles instead of lamps.
All can be forgiven in the face of the lyric sensuality of many passages. The breathtaking first-person epiphany Mary has where God watches her “out of every leaf and blade of grass” makes a believer out of me.