The Weekly Review on The Book of Rachael

Leslie Cannold was perplexed. Among all the documents, internet sites and books she read about the life of Jesus, there was no mention of his sisters. Even the New Testament gospels proved unhelpful.

The Melbourne-based academic, writer and ethicist was curious that “here was a famous person whose four brothers were carefully noted and written down, yet there wasn’t even an acknowledgement of whether Jesus did or did not have sisters. It was another example of women being left out of history, and that interested me.’’

The catalyst for Cannold’s investigation, which started about seven years ago, was an ABC TV documentary on the life of Jesus – or Joshua, as he was known. At one point the series’ narrator told viewers that although historians knew Jesus had four brothers, no one was sure whether he had any sisters. “I remember sitting on the couch and feeling so galled,’’ Cannold recalls. “We know Jesus’ every speech, every fart, every whisper yet nobody ever bothered to record whether he had sisters, or what were their names.

“It was then I thought, ‘I know, I’ll write the story of the sisters. I want to tell their story, I will reclaim them’.?”?

Cannold intended to write a non-fiction work about Jesus’ sisters. Alas, there was no information and no evidence for her inquiry. “I very arrogantly thought ‘oh, that’s all right, if I can’t use the tools of non-fiction, I’ll just pick up the tools of fiction and tell a story,’’ she says.

“I naively thought it would just be a matter of crossing another discipline boundary.’’

A mother of two, Cannold, who was born in the US, is well known to Melbourne audiences through her opinion column in The Age. Last month she was named the 2011 Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies, and in 2005 she was listed as one of Australia’s top 20 public intellectuals. Taking time off to explore fiction and write a novel about one of Jesus’ sisters was a bold move, but one that she has relished.

“I wrote the first draft of my story, then left it for three months. When I went back to read it, I threw up a little in my own mouth. It was very disheartening and I realised I needed help.’’ With a bit of help from an RMIT short course, Cannold embarked on an autodidact’s journey into fiction writing.

The result is The Book of Rachael, one of the gems on Text Publishing’s 2011 fiction list. Cannold sets her story in 30AD Nazareth. Her heroine is Rachael, daughter of Yosef and Miriame, and sister of Joshua. Rachael is smart, independent and passionate about the values she holds dear. She is also acutely aware of the lack of opportunities for women, and throughout the book she challenges her community, the authorities, and her family for the right to be herself.

Rachael falls in love with her brother’s close friend, the charismatic warrior Judah of Iscariot. Not long after, Joshua discovers his gift for speaking to the masses and preaching love, justice, forgiveness and belief. His actions displease the Roman forces and the scene is set for a tragic outcome for the story’s three main characters.

Cannold’s book raises some important issues, and local book clubs in particular will find this a worthy addition to their reading lists. We strongly recommend it for its vision, and for Cannold’s ability to weave a new story around a very old one.

THE BOOK OF RACHAEL By Leslie Cannold $32.95 (Text Publishing)

Publication history

New Take on an Old Story by Corrie Perkin  The Weekly Review