The Silk Merchant of Sychar
This is Australian writer Cindy Williams’ second novel. Her first, The Pounamu Prophecy, was set in her birth country of New Zealand and is about an ancient Maori prophecy.
The Silk Merchant of Sychar is set in ancient biblical times, from AD 21 to 29. The novel is mostly based in the olive groves and market towns of Samaria with a side trip to the Roman garrison city of Sebaste, complete with stadium and bloodthirsty games. Williams has taken the story of the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well in the New Testament and cleverly created an entire backstory. All that was mentioned in the Bible about the woman was that she had five husbands and was living with a man she was not married to.
In The Silk Merchant of Sychar, Leah Marcellus is a Samaritan woman with inherited Roman citizenship from her father’s military achievements. We follow Leah through the trials and tribulations of five very different marriages. Williams has created a determined and ambitious female protagonist fighting for survival in a world where women were considered nothing without a husband. She paints an engrossing picture of how Samaritans, Jews and Romans co-existed in this tumultuous era. The main characters are well written and believable. The geographical landscape is beautifully evocative.
For me the least engaging part of the novel was how the Christian message and Leah’s interaction with Jesus were woven in. It felt a little flat and contrived, but not enough to take away from what is essentially a very enjoyable novel.