Monday, June 20, 2016

The Book of Esther: A Novel

By Charlotte
Book Review: The Book of Esther: A Novel by Emily Barton
Official FC Rating:

Badass, feminist, imaginative, historical.  

I devoured this book. Or maybe it devoured me. 

Let me start by saying that this book is a lot. Barton's writing is awesome, but dense. The vast majority of the reviews I've read for this book mention "info-dumping" and the use of other languages without translation. They're not wrong, but... I almost feel as though these reviewers can't have actually finished the book. The first chapter is the hardest. I put the book down twice (to pick up Harry Potter, of course) because I just couldn't get into the first chapter. But I finally pushed through it, and hot damn I'm glad I did. I went on to finish it in two days because I could not put it down

THAT SAID, I don't necessarily recommend you immediately drop everything and buy the book. Rent it from your library. Or finish this review and read other reviews before dropping $25 on it. 

Because the people who didn't love this book bring up good points. I've seen folks complain that there are too many mystical elements. There are animated clay figures called Golems. There are mechanical horses in the 20th century. There's a man who was born a woman but transformed into a man when he prayed for it while bathing. There's a werewolf. There's also the fact that hundreds rally behind a teenage girl, willfully following her into war. Naturally, people complain that it's a lot to believe. To which I say: just get past it! In the beginning of the book I also struggled to believe everything that was put in front of me. But once I just stopped thinking so hard about it (it's historical fiction, after all), I was able to just relax and thoroughly enjoy the book.

The other major complaints I've seen, and which I feel I need to address before telling anyone to go buy it, are the complaints of language and too much info. Barton uses language throughout the novel that most of us won't understand (Hebrew? Yiddish? Combo? I don't know.) She often translates it, but not always. It was occasionally frustrating, but mostly I thought it was easy enough to understand through context. When I couldn't guess the meaning, I just... got over it. It really doesn't happen enough to distract from the story. Despite not always understanding the occasional blurbs of other-language, I understood and followed the plot. It didn't interfere with character development or rising action or, or, or. And yet, many, many people seemed to really dislike this feature of the book. So I figure it's worth mentioning. If you think this would bother you, it might not be worth reading. And then there's the issue of "info-dumping." There were some parts of the book that were just crazy laden with info - I don't mind it. I thought it was necessary to the story. But if you are more a dialogue and action guy or gal, it's something to consider. For all the info-dumping, though, I thought it was paced just fine. I never got bored.  

And yet, I really, really want to urge everyone to try this book out. It's one of the best books I've read in the last year (up there with The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra and The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy). The writing was perfection - the kind that makes you think of silk and caramel and hot chocolate and tea and blankets and that attic from A Little Princess. I know you know what I mean. 

~Break to go watch A Little Princess. My dear, dear Sara.~ 

So other than the writing, what did I love about this book? First of all, it's historical fiction. It's one of my favorite genres, and I find it interesting. That said, it really stretches the genre since it flat out alters the world. There's a massive Jewish state between Germany and Russia during WWII. So we're not just reading a fictional story that feels real - we're reading something of fantasy. Also, the characters. Ah, the characters. We have Esther, of course. A young woman living in a society that has strict rules and expectations for women. She's high-born. She's set to marry (joyfully, it's to someone she loves). And yet she feels strongly that there's more to be done to defend her homeland when the Germanii begin to attack. ......So she does something. This book is feminist, and it's badass. We get a lot of other great characters as well, and they span young to old, religious to heretical to atheists to soulless. It was all at once exciting and nerve-wracking to watch how these characters would interact, how the story would unfold with so many different kinds of people needing to live among each other. 

I loved that I was never bored, despite how long it took to get to the climax of the book. I love that there were so many moments throughout the book that forced readers to hold their breath in suspense. There was plenty of action. I also happen to love war stories, don't know why, so I appreciated the latter half of the book just as much as the former. (It read historical fiction --> military fiction.)

And though I think it's a bold endeavor that could have been disastrous, I really loved that Barton mashed so many different genres together. At times this book felt religious. At times it felt like fantasy. It was fiction that felt real. I can't say enough good things about this book. 

Of course, I wasn't entirely pleased. Esther isn't perfect by any means. I found her lovable, but she was disappointing from time to time (nothing like Amir though, thank God). I also didn't love the ending - I thought it left too much unanswered. But it wasn't a bad ending, so I'm alright with that. 

Over all, I thought it was an amazing book. I love when we're given strong heroines. I love when my imagination has to stretch. I love reading really good writing. If you love these things too, I'd suggest getting your hands on this book. 

p.s. If any of you read this book and also happen to be Jewish, let me know what you think of it! I'm Catholic and have only a basic understanding of Judaism, and throughout the book I wondered if being Jewish might change the perception of the book. 

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the Blogging For Books program in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.

No comments:

Post a Comment