The Tomb: A Novel of Martha

Written by Stephanie Landsem
Review by Fiona Alison

The Tomb is a recreation of the story of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, teased from scant details provided by biblical history, and incorporating the traditional stories into a fuller context. The premise hinges on one night, at Mary’s wedding feast, when Martha and Isa, a young man she has loved since childhood but cannot hope to marry, share their passion for each other. Seven years later Martha remains unmarried. She keeps house for Lazarus, along with Penina, a mute servant, and 7-year-old Zakai, who is presumed by the townspeople of Bethany to be Penina’s son. But Zakai is Martha’s son, although Isa is unaware of his existence.

Martha is a devout but lonely woman who mourns Isa’s absence, but as time passes, Lazarus feels duty-bound to find her a husband. When Simon, a local Pharisee, presents his suit, Lazarus advises Martha to announce her sin before they marry, sure Simon will forgive her. Simon, however, does not react as Lazarus predicts, and he coerces Martha into an agreement by which she must renounce Jesus and his followers. As Lazarus lies dying she must decide whether to call for Jesus’ help or submit to Simon’s threats.

Landsem tells a dramatic story which reads like a fast-paced family drama, deeply engrossing and vastly detailed. The people – their lives, their beliefs, their laws and customs – are all relayed through strong characterizations so richly drawn that it is possible to intensely dislike some of them for their intolerance and self-satisfaction, whilst believing that they are justified in their actions and beliefs. I found this novel very satisfying, full of inspirational themes but never preachy. I would definitely recommend it.