Resurrecting the Lost Sister - Profile in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald

Novelist & journalist Jane Sullivan goes looking for the author The Book of Rachael

When Leslie Cannold could find no historical reference to Jesus' sisters, she set about the long, difficult task of creating them in fiction.

THE urge to write about Jesus’s sister started to come to Leslie Cannold a few years ago when she was watching an ABC TV documentary series, Son of God, about the historical figure behind Christ. The program explained that Jesus had had four brothers, and gave some details about them. But there was no reference to sisters because nobody had bothered to record if Jesus had any.

“The scholar in me thought, ‘What kind of a world is that?’ ” she says. “I’m a Jewish girl. So I thought, if I’d been born 2000 years ago, this would have been my story. Surely something would be known, some dusty manuscript or scroll would be somewhere.

“I went to the theological library at the University of Melbourne to find these women. I thought, I’ll find out about my own history and right this terrible injustice and do it all in one afternoon.”

Cannold found there was no hidden manuscript: the sisters, if they had indeed ever existed (which was likely, given the large families of the time) had been completely forgotten. To name and record them would be like a farmer today naming his sheep. She was possessed with the idea of writing about these women, but she knew she would have to invent them, so she decided to write a novel.

The result, The Book of Rachael, is the story of a younger sister of Jesus (Joshua), a smart, rebellious, high-spirited girl growing up in a harshly misogynistic society that makes the Taliban look like feminists. Women who are raped are either killed or forced to marry their rapist. Women can’t get into heaven unless they have the soul of a man. And then Rachael goes and falls in love with Judas (Judah) Iscariot …

This makes Cannold’s project sound simple. But it didn’t go the straightforward way she expected. She’d never written a novel before, but how hard could it be? After all, she had a track record.

And what a track record. Sitting with me in the St Kilda cafe, the woman in her forties with the beautiful blue-grey eyes is a very familiar face. For years she’s been a provocative presence in Australian print media, on radio and on television. Described as a “talking-head ethicist”, she’s been listed as one of Australia’s top 20 public intellectuals.

She hands me a business card. Dr Leslie Cannold: writer, commentator, ethicist, activist. And there are four verbs: Think, Create, Communicate, Change.

She’s the author of two non-fiction books, The Abortion Myth and What, No Baby? Her academic credentials include positions as an adjunct fellow at the School of Philosophy, Anthropology and Social Inquiry at the University of Melbourne; and senior lecturer at the Monash Institute of Health Services Research. As president of Reproductive Choice Australia and of Pro Choice Victoria, she played a key role in removing the ban on the abortion drug RU486 and decriminalising abortion in Victoria. She’s a Dying with Dignity ambassador for law reform. She sings with a rock band and she mentors activists on how to tweet.

This is the background of a confident, fiercely intelligent, articulate and passionate woman. She’s determined to the point of stubbornness: “I set out to do things, crash or crash through, and usually I end up crashing through.” But trying to write a novel exposed a surprising vulnerability.

She did have one earlier setback, she confesses. Growing up in the US, her ambition was to be a lawyer. One of the tests she had to pass focused on mathematical and spatial ability, and she failed. Later, she discovered she was failing at fiction.

“I’d crossed disciplines a lot in my academic work but it was extraordinarily naive on my part to think I could just swap from non-fiction to fiction,” she says. “I completely overestimated my talent and underestimated the challenge.”

For years, she wrote draft after draft, put each one in a drawer, pulled it out later to read and realised it was “abysmal”, but had no idea how to fix it. Again and again, she gave up. But the story would not let her alone: she felt more and more guilty. “These women had been forgotten — and there I was, forgetting them again. I felt like I was letting them down, as if they were crying from the grave: remember me!”

In the end, Cannold realised she would have to acquire a fiction writer’s toolkit. She enrolled in the RMIT professional writing and editing course and studied novel writing. She discovered that reading other people’s bad fiction was helpful: “When you read something finished, you can’t see the bones of it. But when you read other people’s mistakes, you see what is wrong with your work.”

From this point on, The Book of Rachael took shape quite quickly. She made an early decision that it would be secular. Joshua never claims to be the Messiah or the Son of God. Lazarus is raised, but not by a miracle. Rachael’s mother, Miriame, never has a virgin birth. Judah is a betrayer, but not in the way the Bible says.

The novel is based on her reading of the four Gospels. “I read them straight through, I formed a view about what they were telling me, and that’s in the book. Then I started talking to other people about it. They’d say” — she mimes shock — “ ‘You can’t say that.’ I thought, ‘Have you read it?’ It’s a sacred text to a lot of people, but what I read isn’t what people think is in there.”

She’s impatient with some of the doctrine. Of course Mary (Miriame) was pregnant when Joseph came to take her home as his wife. How implausible that Judas, one of the most trusted disciples, suddenly became a traitor for no reason. And how ridiculous for the Pope to forgive the Jews for killing Jesus: “Jesus was a Jew, everybody was a Jew. Who else would he be killed by?”

As a non-believer raised by secular Jews, who knew nothing about Jesus — “I’d have said, He wore a blue robe. He hangs on a cross. His birthday is Christmas. And something about Easter” — Cannold had to come to her own conclusion about how to “manage God”. She decided she needed characters who each had their own version of faith that made sense to them. “I didn’t set out to outrage or contradict or rewrite. I tried to close my ears to the cacophony of all the different faiths. It felt like I was telling it straight.”

It’s hard to read the texts of the time and not see them as deeply misogynous, almost in a casual way, she says. Was she concerned she might offend religious readers? “Sometimes, but this happens in my journalistic work as well. If I let it intrude too much, I’d never write a word.”

One of the strongest aspects of her novel is the fraught relationship between Rachael and her mother, Miriame. Far from the saintly Virgin Mary of tradition, Miriame is a waspish-tongued domestic tyrant determined to get her wayward daughter doing what she was born to do: sweep the floor. Yet Rachael comes to the point when she realises Miriame is trying to do her best for her, to prepare her for the strict and unforgiving society she will have to live in. “Who wants to pass down these rules? But on the other hand, how can you not?”

While she was writing, Cannold sometimes identified with Rachael and sometimes with Miriame, and it’s clear that her feelings go back to her relationship with her own mother. She had a very different upbringing from Rachael, in the comfortable environs of Westchester County. Even then, though, she was voraciously reading Oprah-ish stories (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; Daddy was a Number Runner; the works of Judy Blume) of girls growing up in poverty and oppression, or confused about their identity.

“My parents were divorced and fighting a fair bit, and there was a lot of stress,” she says. “My way of dealing with that was I would go back to a book I really loved, and read it again.” Her mother would bring books home and leave them on the bed, without comment. “My mother was enraged herself about her own mother’s failure to prepare her for the world she had to live in,” Cannold says. “She was raised for this 1950s life, to think the only thing was to get married and have children. And then she was divorced. She wanted me to have a career, but she was ambivalent: she also wanted me to be married and have children and be secure. She was trying to be the voice of reason and reality in my life.

“I expect I did show an early dangerous sense of wanting to do something very insecure, like being an actor or a writer. I was encouraged by my father, but not by her. You take it on without consciously realising it.”

In her twenties, Cannold migrated to Australia and pursued an academic life: she studied bioethics and was an early protege of Peter Singer at Monash University. When she got her PhD, in education, she went into the University of Melbourne and they gave her a balloon. “I wandered out into the sunlight and thought, ‘Six years, now I can decide what I really want to do with my life.’ It was only then I realised I got a PhD for my mother.”

She has two teenage sons, and feels that they learn from the example of what their parents do. Her partner, Adam Clarke, is most influential here, she says: “A wonderful man.”

As a feminist, it was good for her to write the novel, to remind herself that today we’re so much closer to the kind of world “where what your genitals look like is irrelevant to what you can be … Sometimes you get very caught up in what we haven’t yet achieved. It was important to go back and realise, sure, it’s not perfect yet, but we’ve come a long way.”

She’s delighted when people ask what Rachael might be doing now if she’d been born in our time. “She’d be Prime Minister, or the head of the UN, or head of a Fortune 500 company. She was born for this century, this decade.”

Whatever Rachael would be doing, she’d be heading towards the same goals as Leslie Cannold: “When you don’t have faith, you have to come up with a reason why you’re here on the planet. My reason is that I want to feel when I look back on my life that I have left the world a better place than when I came into it.”

The Book of Rachael is published by Text at $32.95. Buy here

Publication history

Resurrecting the Lost Sister  Books Section in The Age & Sydney Morning Herald