Monday, July 13, 2009

The Gilded Chamber by Rebecca Kohn - 384 pages

Book CoverIn this inventive work of Biblical fiction, Rebecca Kohn tells the story of a young Hassadah, a Jewish orphan who is sent to live with her cousin Mordecchai following her parents' deaths. Hassadah barely has time to unpack her things before she is swept away by King Xerxes's soldiers, who are in the process of gathering up all the young virgins of the land to be presented to the King as prospective wives. The hundreds of young women who are not selected by the King will eventually come to spend the rest of their days in the King's harem as his concubines. When Hassadah enters the harem, she is immediately noticed by the keeper of the women and her name is changed to Esther. As she navigates the troubled world of the harem, she learns about the King she has not yet met and begins to be groomed as the perfect companion for Xerxes. When the King finally meets the beautiful and kind Esther, he is immediately enamored of her and quickly makes her his Queen, removing her from the fate of the concubines and making her the most powerful woman in the land. But Esther's story does not end there, for there is mischief in the form of plots on the King's life and danger and jealousies from all corners of the kingdom and beyond. Soon it becomes apparent that Esther will be more influential and powerful than even she thought possible, as the very survival of the Jewish people rests solely in her hands. Sweeping and illuminative, Kohn transforms this short chapter of the Bible into an intricate story of a courageous and influential young woman who became Queen, and so much more.

I had read this book several years ago and ended up having a pretty positive experience with it. Not so the second time around. Although I found the story interesting, this time I found that it veered a bit too much into the area of melodrama for my liking. At times, Ester would burst into dark poetic passages that mirrored her circumstances, but I found that these passages were somehow jarring and took me out of the story, and frankly, they sometimes put me in a bad mood. I think the author's intention was to add a bit of dimension to her main character, but it came off as stiff and unbelievable, and it was a definite detraction in this tale. I felt as though there was already enough meat in her character portrayal without the dramatic pandering that she went through every time she faced conflict; instead of it drawing me closer to her, it actually pushed me away.

I was also a bit put off by the blatant sexuality in the tale. The sexual elements in this book seemed very out of place and not really rendered well at all. I didn't really need to know that the Queen's gown neatly left visible all of her "secret treasures" and I thought it was a bit exploitative to inject these bits into what was already a sufficiently stirring story. I think the author had a way of cheapening the sexual aspects of the story in her attempts to be coy and non-offensive. I would have much rather had the characters refer to their body parts or sexual activities in proper terms, instead of having to read about "innermost treasures."

Another thing that I had a problem with was the historical accuracy of this book. While each writer of historical fiction must take certain liberties when writing a fictional version of historical events, I don't much like it when the history portion of the narrative is fabricated. I understand that this was done in order to provide a more smooth storyline and to increase the dramatic intent of the story, but it really affected my enjoyment of and immersion in the story. It just wasn't fun having to pick apart what was accurate and what was not while trying to enjoy the novel, and so this also irked me.

On the other hand, I found that the story had great atmospheric touches and that the sections that described harem life were very consuming. I liked that there were several other supporting characters' stories that round out this story and the stories of the other concubines were integrated very nicely with Esther's main storyline. The girls that Esther befriended in the harem all had interesting qualities and striking motivations for their actions, while her handmaiden, Puah, exhibited the motherly love that Esther had been longing for most of her life. I also liked all of the royal intrigue that took place within the kingdom, and thought that the author had a great ability to imbue her characters with telling and believable behavioral traits. In some way this book was very pleasurable, but in others I found it lacking.

This was also the first pick for our book club. Most of the group had similar feelings as I did towards it, and most found the first half of the book to be more involving than the latter half. A few of the members had substantial issues with the fact that the history and the timeline of the story was so changed from the actual story in the Bible, and others felt that her characters, particularly her portrayal of Esther, was not constant throughout the narrative. I have to agree that in later sections Esther acted truly out of character in order to fill out the machinations of the plot. Overall, I would have to say that the surface opinion of the book was generally positive, but further discussion led us to agree that there was much to pick apart in relation to several aspects of the story. I think that if you are not familiar with the story of Esther in the bible, this book would make a pleasant diversion for you. If, however, you are looking for a book that is more faithful to the actual story in the bible, I suggest you look elsewhere.


Marie Cloutier said...

Sounds like kind of a bummer. The sexuality sounds icky and i don't like it when the characters behave out of character just to make plot points happen. Bah.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I have not heard of this book. I don't read loads of historical novels, but i do enjoy some. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

Elizabeth said...

Great review. I read this a couple of years ago, and remember being a little shocked by the overt sexuality - like you said, it seemed a little much.

Lenore Appelhans said...

"secret treasures" lol!

Melissa said...

I really enjoyed The Red Tent, and have been looking to read more Biblical fiction, but I think I'll stay away from this one.

I also think it's interesting how rereading a book can change our feelings toward it so much. It makes me almost leary to reread some books. What if they don't measure up the second time around?

The Tome Traveller said...

This is an area of HF that I haven't read too much of yet. This has a great cover - normally I am completly sucked in by a cover like that. Glad to have read your excellent review! I don't think overt sexuality and biblical fiction go together very well, either.

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

Interesting that your take the second time around was so different; maybe you've been reading more (volume, variety ... to make the comparison)

The sections you quoted would probably jar at me, too.

Good for you, though, to have a new book group - wishing you great discussions!

Bagels, Books and Schmooze said...

I read this book and had a interview from the author. When I described this book, I said it was too fantasy-like for my taste. I did not like it for all the elements that you described. There is one book that I read called The Queenmaker by India Edgehill, that I enjoyed reading. I have been in communication with her. She is about to release a book called Delilah. But, she just told me she is in the middle of writing a biblical fiction about Queen Esther. I would like to see how she writes the story. The problem with biblical fiction If you don't know much about the bible you are all right. But if you are knowlegeable you know it is full of inaccuracies. But, I end up researching, which gives me a little bit more education.

Thanks for the review,

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