GUEST REVIEW: Love Amid the Ashes by Mesu Andrews
In lieu of our regular opinion piece, we bring you a review from Joanne Renaud. Joanne is an author/illustrator who graduated in illustration from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. She studied both graphic design at Central Washington University and art at the University of Ulster in Belfast, Northern Ireland. You can visit Joanne here and read a previous review from Joanne of Celtic Storms by Delaney Rhodes.
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Dear Mesu Andrews,
I have complicated feelings about your debut novel, Love Amid the Ashes.
I first saw it in an upscale grocery store in the greater Atlanta area, where so-called “bonnet rippers” (Amish romances) and inspirational romances (aka “inspies”) were big sellers. Love Amid the Ashes jumped out at me because of the intriguing setting– early Bronze Age Israel– and the characters of Job and Dinah. It seemed worth a look, so I made a mental note to check it out some day.
The other day I finally had the chance to read it. I was pleasantly surprised in some ways; but in other ways I was less than thrilled. Ashes is a fascinating combination of great and terrible storytelling. It’s a solid read with some fun world-building, the religious aspect didn’t bother me too much, and it had some really interesting characters with an intriguing feminist subtext. That said, Ashes has some big issues. Unfortunately, it kind of falls apart in the end, which made me a bit sad, because I got into it more than I thought I would.
What we have here is a retelling of the Book of Job from a woman’s perspective. The main character is Dinah, who is brought to Job’s city to marry one of his sons; when the son is killed, she stays because, as a shamed woman, she doesn’t have any other place to go. Job’s first wife, Sitis, is also an important character, and her fall and redemption is probably the most interesting and compelling part of the story. Dinah and Sitis start out as rivals, but they eventually become friends, and I really liked seeing this.
There’s also Job, but he’s kind of not that interesting. He starts off as a really nice rich guy, one of the few guys to ever treat Dinah well or stick up for her; but then he loses everything, and he ends up on a dung pile arguing with God (at great length). I could see, in theory, why Sitis and Dinah were so invested in him, because he’s a decent dude in a land of macho Bronze Age assholes, but his suffering was just… so tedious. I think the author was going for the horrific, nauseating gravitas that G. R. R. Martin invests his suffering characters and their circumstances, but somehow the mark was missed. (I think possibly the story wasn’t grounded enough in the harsh realities of the Bronze Age Near East to achieve this, but more on this later.) Job has so many injustices piled upon him that, instead of horrifying, it eventually becomes ridiculous, a bit like a Monty Python skit.
So, what worked? I have to say, I really liked the depiction of the women in the book. Unlike some other Biblical-era inspies I’ve read, Ashes has strong female characters and relationships. Dinah is the heroine, but there’s no slut-shaming or othering of the other female characters (such as in One Night With the King). Since it’s clear that Job/Dinah was the endgame from the back copy alone, I was afraid how Sitis the wife would be depicted, especially since its clear she has pagan sympathies at the beginning (and this is not the kind of genre that is particularly forgiving to goddess worshippers). However, the depiction of Sitis ended up being, I thought, one of the strongest aspects of Ashes. Sitis starts out as pampered Ishmaelite princess, proud, touchy, temperamental and fond of luxury, who adores her children and her room of billowing linen curtains equally. She’s not the most likable woman, but she’s vulnerable and complex; she suffered from years of miscarriages before finally giving birth; and she loves her husband, but she’s drawn to her childhood friend Sayyid, who accommodates her goddess-worship without condemning her, like her husband Job. I expected Sitis to discard Job, and be seduced by Sayyid, and to come to a nasty end (because women always do in books like this). I liked her, and was afraid for her.
But it wasn’t quite that simple. Sayyid, rather than God, causes Job’s downfall, because he’s obsessed with Sitis. He then offers to marry Sitis, but she refuses him repeatedly because she really loves Job. Sayyid then forces her to become a servant, hacks off her hair, and separates her from her beloved elderly servant Nada. All the while Sitis struggles with her rage against God, her rage at Job, and eventually– once she discovers the true nature of Sayyid, and his conspiracy against her husband– reconciles to Job and God in what I found to be a pretty moving emotional arc.
But then– AND THEN– after three fourths of the book was done—she’s poisoned by Sayyid and dies offstage, conveniently making room for Job to move on to a new girl. Yeah, there’s some token hand-wringing from Job about his wife having just died, but it’s just so preemptory. It’s weird that this character is give so much weight and importance, but once she dies she’s pretty much discarded. The Job/Dinah relationship felt incredibly rushed, especially since it happens right after Job’s wife and Dinah’s friend dies this agonizing death. So Job and Dinah found “love amid the ashes,” and they get a happy ending funded by the Egyptian treasury, courtesy of Dinah’s brother Joseph and his new job. That’s… nice, I guess. But what about Sitis? Nah, it’s cool, you seemed to say. Don’t worry about her. She’s dead!
Dinah is officially the protagonist of Ashes, but she’s not much to write home about. She starts off as a promising character; a talented healer, but broken and bitter over her mistreatment by her horrible family after her lover was murdered over fifteen years before. Then Job comes in, dashing, wealthy, charismatic and copper-haired, a genuinely good guy who believes in God (or as El Shaddai as he’s called in the book), and who brings her back to God with his kindness and understanding. So she has a small redemption arc of her own which climaxes early on in Chapter Four– but once she’s brought to Uz she loses whatever agency she has (which doesn’t really seem like much at any rate), and becomes a witness to the horror show that is Job and Sitis’s life. Her relationship with Sitis does become interesting, but I think Sitis does most of the heavy lifting in that.
Physically, Dinah is described as a gorgeous blue-eyed blonde (the white-washing of what is basically an all Middle Eastern cast is also problematic; practically everyone in this book has blond or red hair, with the exception of Sitis, Sayyid and Dinah’s black maid). In the end all she seems to do is tend the sick and cry a lot. (Her tears are repeatedly described as “rivers.”) Even though an intriguing backstory is hinted at for Dinah—she’s dishonored as she’s no longer a virgin, and her true love Shechem was killed by her brothers in a traumatic bloodbath, a la The Red Tent— the Dinah in the story, all things considered, is pretty insipid. She’s a passive bystander who cries and prays as she watches all the crap go down with Job, Sitis and Sayyid. It seems to me that you really missed the boat in making Dinah the heroine, when actually the real protagonist was Sitis. Sitis’s actions drive the story. She’s the one with the real, meaty redemptive arc, from spoiled and wealthy idolator to abused serving-girl to loving and accepting wife. Job/Sitis is a way more interesting relationship than what Job has with Dinah. Unfortunately, Sitis also has to die, while Job ends up marrying again.
Honestly, I’m not sure what you could have done to make your current story work, but what you have now is pretty flawed. I understand why it happened, though. It’s often hard to write an active female protagonist whose actions drive the plot in a historical retelling like this; instead, stuff just happens to people around Dinah, and she reacts. But Sitis, in contrast, is just so compelling. It’s a hell of a thing, I think, when the main character ends up being someone you don’t even realize IS the main character.
So, there’s that. But what about everything else?
I really liked the depiction of Uz (Job and Sitis’s city) which was inspired by Nabatean Petra. There’s many beautiful descriptions of grand palaces carved out of the mountain rock, amid oases and gardens. I loved the scenes set in Sitis’s bedroom, with its billowing linen curtains. While not strictly historical, it was cool. You could smell everything too, from the mint and spice of the early scenes, to the wretched manure heaps when Job is sick and shamed. You have a vivid turn of phrase, and I was never entirely sure what was going to happen next, which is always a good thing.
Now, earlier I said that I think possibly Job’s suffering was not strictly believable because the story was not particularly grounded in the realities of the age in which it was set (the 1880s BCE, as far as I could tell). A lot of inspies don’t have the best track record with historicity, since a lot of them seem to force this Evangelical Protestant viewpoint onto this historical setting where Evangelical Protestantism (as we now know it) didn’t even exist. In this regard, Ashes isn’t any different.
Evangelical Protestantism asides, there are some weird things going on in this book. For starters, all the patriarchs are the ages stated in the Bible, so you basically have these guys who well over a hundred years old still arguing with each other. Job is one of the younger generation, so he’s a handsome, virile, middle-aged man at the age of… sixty. Dinah, however, is thirty-five, and early on she thinks: “Thirty-five was well past honey and cream and dangerously close to curdled milk.” Meanwhile, Sitis is fifty-three, and she’s described as being curvaceous, with long black hair, and still very desirable. And a man of thirty is described as far too young and immature to be married. It’s just… bizarre, especially all the descriptions of Bronze Age material culture seem somewhat realistic. Yet it’s 2000 BCE, in a world where lives are nasty, brutish and short, with leprosy and no outdoor sanitation and maggot-infested wounds and constant warfare and death lurking around every corner, but everyone is as long-lived and healthy as if they had great medical plans in an upper-middle class neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley.
It really doesn’t make any sense, and there’s really no sense of there being any real peril for Job or Dinah, since we know they’re going to be fine. Death happens conveniently offstage, or in a flashback, and sex also is kept far away from the reader. Sitis, as far as I could tell, is the only character who actually wants to have sex at any point in the story, but Job shuts her down because he’s in mourning. Okay. Dinah’s maid Nogahla ogles her boyfriend’s muscular back, and she’s embarrassed to even think that she might possibly find him desirable. (I’ve read my share of Sumerian and Assyrian literature, and I gotta say, shyness about sex is not something you see. At all.) And later on, Dinah tells Job:
“I have loved you, Job,” she said, “since the day I met you.” She must have glimpsed his uncertainty because she quickly explained, “I didn’t fall in love with you until after Sitis died, but I loved the ideal of you, the man of God that you are.” (Mesu Andrews, Love Amid the Ashes [Kindle Locations 4895-4897]. Revell. Kindle Edition.)
Um… man, that’s awkward.
Love Amid the Ashes is a fascinating and frustrating book. It’s kind of a love letter to Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, which is really admirable in a lot of ways. I like the ideas in it. I think, in its way, it’s sympathetic with feminism, and it deals with women fairly. I don’t think I’ve ever read another inspirational set in this period where the women have so much depth and are so sympathetically portrayed; in contrast, the patriarchs who judge and condemn both Dinah and Sitis are awful people who are implicitly denounced for their hypocrisy, manipulation, and violence. Job is held up as an example of a more sensitive, honest, less sexist believer in God, and throughout his trials it’s Dinah and Sitis (and other women too) who help him out the most. It’s ambitious and long, but it was a fast read for me, and I was always entertained. As a debut novel, it’s an impressive achievement, and a great example of what midrash can accomplish. But there are a lot of problems with it. I’m not sure if the problems originate from the heavily patriarchal nature of the Old Testament, and the evangelical desire to take the original text literally. Or perhaps the problems originate from the passive nature of the protagonist. Or maybe it’s all of the above.
I’m kind of waffling whether I should give it a C+ or a B-; the bad parts are bad, but the good parts are really good. I’ll give it a B-. And now I can’t wait to check out your other books!
— Joanne Renaud
The reviewer purchased the Kindle edition on Amazon.