Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Review: Rav Hisda's Daughter: The Enchantress by Maggie Anton

33. Rav Hisda's Daughter: The Enchantress by Maggie Anton

*Published Sept. 2, 2014*

Hisdadukh is a charasheta, or enchantress, who is learned in the ways of healing and protective magic. She is the daughter of a historical Talmudic scholar, Rav Hisda, who is himself learned in priestly magic. In Anton's world, the wives and daughters of Talmudic scholars have an equivalent brand of magic that they use to protect their families and communities. It's an interesting portrait of feminine power in a highly misogynistic era.

Anton is known for her earlier historical novels on the daughters of Rashi, arguably the best known Talmudic scholar. The Enchantress is the sequel to Rav Hisda's Daughter: The Apprentice. Although I have not read the first book, I was able to get into the story fairly easily. That said, I think my knowledge of the eponymous viewpoint character would have been deeper if I had read it. Many of the events in the earlier book are referenced here.

The book is heavily steeped in the apocrypha of Judaism and Talmud. I recognize some of it, but I'm not knowledgeable enough to judge the historical accuracy of it. In any case, the presentation of demons and angels as real entities is grounded in Biblical and folkloric representations, though in this day and age, it comes off as fantastical. The interactions with these creatures and the numerous discussions of Baraitot, rabbinic teachings, were the most captivating sections of the book to me.

Early in the book, Hisdadukh teaches a Baraita to her prickly love interest, Rava (also a historical scholar):

"What is taking vengeance and what is bearing a grudge?" I asked. "Revenge is when one man asks another to lend him a sickle and the second refuses, then when the second man asks the first to lend him a shovel, the first one says, 'Just as you wouldn't lend me your sickle, so I will not lend you my shovel.' This is taking vengeance."


"a grudge is when one man asks another to lend him a sickle and the second refuses, then when the second man asks the first to lend him a shovel, the first one says, 'Here it is. I am not like you who did not lend me your sickle.' This is bearing a grudge."

The content of the Baraita cleverly references Hisdadukh's awareness that Rava bears her a grudge for long ago refusing to marry him. In this new novel, she hopes to re-capture his interest, for she realizes it is their fate to be together.

I understand that many people will be repulsed by the nature of their relationship and by both characters', though notably Rava's, misogyny. What I would say is that this book is rooted in a historical period and in a religion, and furthermore particular interpretations of that religion, and to both of them, their relationship is perfectly consensual. It may not be what a modern woman longs for, but in Hisdadukh's context, a man who respects her arcane practices and even trusts and consults her learning, is a lot to be thankful for.

While there is an underlying plot throughout the novel, it's almost an excuse for this fictional biography. Once past the drama of Hisdadukh and Rava's reconciliation and marriage, the book slows down. Anton skips and glosses over years and events, but the events she does show don't necessarily relate to the underlying threads, and she seems to feel the need to mention events that she didn't think worth portraying. This makes for a lot of telling rather than showing, and oddly jarring moments.

For example, Hisdadukh's slave Leuton is a recurring character who features in many events. She braids Hisdadukh's hair, advises her, and accompanies her in difficult moments. Though the character is never fully developed, it's very off-putting when she is finally disposed of in a a couple of afterthought sentences:

"Leuton, who'd served me loyally since Rami's death, had died after a distracted carter crushed her against a wall, and I couldn't replace her."

Goodness, what a violent death! You would think there would at least be a scene to describe it, and a scene of mourning. But that's it. Leuton is never mentioned again.

The Enchantress is, at best, an imaginative investigation into what a Jewish sorceress' life, if she really existed, might have entailed. At worst, it is a dragging, improbable, misogynistic Talmud-era riff on the far more engaging The Red Tent. It really depends on your view. Personally, I'm intrigued enough to try one of the Rashi's daughters novels, and I would recommend The Enchantress if you have a strong interest in the period or in Judaism.

Note: While a number of obscure Hebrew words are scattered throughout the book, there is a thorough glossary in the back.

Received for review from LibraryThing Early Reviewers

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