And So It Was Written, by Ellen Brazer. TCJ Publishing. 338 pages. $14.95 trade paperback.
Ellen Brazer has taken on quite a challenge in her quest to breathe life into the story of Bar Kokhba’s rebellion against the Roman rulers that took place around 130 C.E. In imagining this long-ago world during the Israelite struggle for survival, she frames a narrative that includes two sets of rival brothers. In this way, she follows the grand tradition of Biblical story-telling: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. Her Jewish pair is the sweet, contemplative Livel and the physically imposing Masabala. They, at least, are friendly rivals.
The studious Livel is taken as a slave into the family of a powerful Roman leader after he is captured in a Roman raid not far from his home in En Gedi. His brother Masabala, the true warrior, takes upon himself the guilt of his brother’s uncertain fate. Both young men are the sons of Rabbi Eleazar, the Aaronic high priest. The Israelite people are living at a curious time, dazzled by the self-confidence, charm, and military prowess of Bar Kokhba – at once military leader and self-proclaimed messiah with a growing number of devoted followers. Bar Kokhba has successfully freed the Hebrews from Roman rule, but now the brief recurrence of their national independence is threatened by the return of determined Roman forces.
Taken into the household of his conqueror, the Roman senator Marcus Gracchus, Livel becomes a tutor to this accomplished leader’s sons, Scipio and Domitius. For these brothers, the rivalry is not friendly. It is so fierce that it is potentially deadly. Scipio is a man of integrity and humane values, while Domitius is vain, cruel, and driven. Marcus consciously sets them against one another. Scipio is winning Livel’s sympathies as a student; Domitius is haughty, irresponsible, and dangerous.
Once the story lines are established, Ellen Brazer skillfully moves us back and forth between the Roman family and its larger world and the Jewish family and its Israelite context. We meet the woman whom Masabala marries and get close to other members of Rabbi Eleazar’s family as well as leaders of Bar Kokhba’s forces. This part of the story involves a rediscovery of the Ark of the Covenant holding the Ten Commandments.
Livel’s experiences within the power centers in Roman culture bring him into the orbit of the great physician, Galen (these episodes are consciously anachronistic – Galen’s life as a scientist is actually somewhat later than the years being recreated in the novel). Livel becomes Galen’s student and is trained and mentored along with Galen’s daughter, to whom he is attracted. However, the young woman is jealous of Livel for several reasons, making their relationship awkward as well as intriguing.
The strengths of And So It Was Written are many and varied. It is truly suspenseful. Characters and setting, including material culture, are handled with authority, as long as we remember that the book is not history, but rather based on history with imaginative leaps in the service of story-telling.
The contrast between the monotheistic religion of the Jews and the Roman polytheistic world view provides a provocative undercurrent. The thirst for knowledge shared by the exemplary characters and the yearning for matching destiny with identity probed within almost every character relate to eternal issues as relevant today as they were in the past that Mrs. Brazer embroiders.
In her fictional delineation of striking individuals, families, and nations, Ellen Brazer gives readers much with which to identify. In following the threads of her “what if” premise, she entertains, teaches, and teases. “Could this be?” we wonder. Each reader will have his or her answer, but the process of questioning is really the novel’s power and reward.
This review appears in the December 2012 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).