REVIEW: Banished to the Harem by Carol Marinelli
Dear Ms. Marinelli:
Captivity narratives are a staple of the romance genre, but rarely is it ever done correctly. And yes, I do believe that there is a correct way in which a captivity narrative is carried out in a book. The idea is that one person, usually the woman, is kidnapped by the another more powerful entity (usually the hero). The captive then begins to effectuate change from within. In some ways it is a true triumph of the submissive and the trope replayed itself exhaustively in early 80s and 90s historical fiction. You see it quite a bit in paranormal fiction as well.
For the captivity narrative to work, however, the captive must gain agency in order for the two to achieve a parity in their relationship. Further, the captivity narrative shouldn’t degrade one culture in favor of the other (in other words the white woman’s culture overtakes all the customs of the native).
Banished to the Harem is a category novel that takes the captivity narrative and works it into a contemporary romance; however, it’s almost best to read this as a fantasy or alternate universe tale. Sheikh Rakhal Alzirz must take a wife and beget an heir. The traditions of their land requires that he take only one woman and impregnate her. Once his seed takes root, he must suppress his desires and take surcease in his harem, allowing the seed to grow within his wife until the heir or heiress to the throne is birthed. Rakhal is a true believer in the customs and myths of his land. His father, for instance, broke the customs and took his wife to London and she eventually died. Rakhal and his father view the mother’s death as the price his father paid for disregarding the myths of the land. And the myths required only one wife for his father, leaving Rakhal motherless.
When he has a brief fling with the virgin Natasha and she suspects she might be pregnant, Rakhal kidnaps her to his kingdom where he tries to impress upon her the values of his world. He has a harem for her sake, not for his. One of the things I appreciated about the book was the unflinching portrayal of Rakhal as a man of power and privilege. When he discovers that Natasha is a virgin, he is delighted. He will take her virginity as a celebration of his last single day in London.
While this might sound like lip service to his own selfish needs, Rakhal’s point of view is dominated by his thoughts of Natasha, his desire to only be with her, and his struggle to maintain the traditions of his people. His frank acknowledgment of his own predilections makes his actions palatable. Further, he agrees to return Natasha home if she is not pregnant and to never touch her again.
Natasha, for her part, is suitably upset at being kidnapped and held hostage. She had been wooed assiduously by Rakhal and she had given in to him, enjoying a fling for once in her utterly responsible life. Natasha believes that Rakhal’s intent to shun her for all but a few days a month means she is simply a vessel of fertility. Rakhal argues that she would be most honored through the land. In accepting the myth of this story, you have to buy into Rakhal’s belief system about his own land and that he is, not ignorant of the outside world, but at the least does not ascribe to Western philosophies in any fashion. Importantly, Natasha continues to stand up for herself and she runs the gamut from not willing to be the honored vessel to fighting for her love.
The story, likely because of its length, doesn’t argue for change in social policy in the broad scope. Instead, it is an agitation of personal and intimate policy. Rakhal’s sister kingdom is ruled by a cousin and their belief is that you can marry as many times as you wish but only a male heir inherits. When the sister kingdom suffers a tragic loss and Rakhal is rocked by his feelings for Natasha, Rakhal is forced to re-evaluate the myth that has dominated his kingdom.
This is not a book for everyone, but if the captivity narrative is of interest, this is a well done contemporary setting full of emotional angst. B