Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Gilded Chamber: a Novel of Queen Esther by Rebecca Kohn

The Gilded Chamber is a current book club book. I don't know that I would have picked it up had a friend not handed me her copy after she finished. Reading the blurb it didn't capture my attention - it is a retelling of the Biblical story of Esther. Once I had it, I figured I might as well give it a go. I read the whole book on two airplane flights which is not the most focused reading.

Possibly because of where I read it, I find myself remarkably ambivalent about this novel. I am having a hard time coming up with enough thoughts to say anything either positive or negative about the story. It was light and entertaining. It was a well thought-out, detailed rendition of a Biblical character. But I didn't find myself particularly moved as I read. I did pass it on to my mother-in-law who I think will enjoy it, but I don't know that it would occur to me to recommend this book to many readers.

A few fleeting thoughts about the book in no particular order:

1. Why does the cover art depict a brunette? An important aspect of the story is dying Esther's hair blond so she will look more like the goddess Ishtar. Throughout the book her hair is continually dyed. There is nothing in the story that makes me look at this picture and identify it with the Esther as described by Kohn. It is an overtly sexualized depiction of the harem as perceived by American audiences.

2. Can this book be described as historical fiction? In the interview at the end Kohn spends a fair amount of time describing the research that she underwent to write the novel. And while she did a lot of work, I think it is presumptuous to assume that we can guess what life was like in Esther's time. I think Kohn did as good a job as could be hoped for, but I still would like people to think of this novel more as fiction and MUCH less as history. There is just too much fantastical recreation to suggest that it is accurate.

3. What about feminism? This question in the interview with Kohn about feminism really threw me for a loop. Was Esther a feminist? How can you describe a woman who lived over 2000 years before the concept of feminism as a feminist? That is giving her too much power over her situation. While Kohn depicted her as a strong woman, she was clearly a woman of her time. And in that same vein, Kohn admitted that her depiction of life in a harem was tenuous as there is little well-done research into this very private world. So to even suggest that we can use Kohn's book as an accurate portrayal of women's lives in this era is problematic.


cathy said...

Your review sums up my thoughts exactly! It was very readable, but so uninspiring. Insipid almost. And yeah, what was up with the brunette on the cover?

A Gwen Nelson said...

I feel kind of bad posting before we've discussed it. I don't want to sway anyone's comments. But I'm glad to hear that you weren't particularly inspired either!

Dani said...

I only considered this a book that was slightly better in quality than a romance novel. I had high hopes for it though, because it was compared to The Red Tent.

g.n.a.t. said...

Yeah, very romance-y. I was hoping for more too given the focus on academic research that was highlighted. Oh well, can't win 'em all.