In an “Author’s Note” at the end of her absorbing new novel, Esther, Rebecca Kanner briefly explores a few personal inclinations that made her want to write this book. I loved Esther (and Esther, too) already, probably by page 25, but here on page 380 Kanner confirms one of many reasons why:
I’ve never been satisfied with the assumption that many come away with after reading the Book of Esther: the king made Esther queen because she was beautiful. With hundreds of beautiful girls for the king to choose from, a girl would have been foolish to rely solely on her beauty.
That Esther is beautiful is something the reader never doubts. Kanner does an amazing job at all of her physical descriptions: Esther’s beauty and how it only increases as she gains weight and curves during the near-to-year she is “prepared” for King Xerxes; the fantastically claustrophobic world of the harem, replete with wild animals, supposedly “tamed” eunuchs, and so many, many pretty, hopeful, powerless, alcohol- and drug-addled teenaged girls; images of violence and stunning cruelty; the brief, conflicted encounters Esther has with the King, and with others, too.
One thing I always hope for in fiction: to be removed to another world. In Esther, I journeyed not only back in time but into the heart and mind of a woman who (and now is when you know the novelist really has succeeded) could have been me.
Well, maybe except for the exceptional beauty part.
Because while Esther is beautiful, she (like many of the Old Testament’s chosen people, says Kanner) is not perfect. She is called out, repeatedly, for being angry, rash and reckless. She drinks too much and skips her prayers. Esther very quickly and cleverly reads people, decides (sometimes incorrectly) whom to trust, and begins to grow and wield her power before she controls it. She is warned, with good reason, by her platonic love (one of Xerxes’ most valued soldiers) Erez,
You cannot be dangerous to someone else without also being dangerous to yourself.
Unwittingly, Esther is instrumental in, if not responsible for, the torture, maiming and death of many, some of whom are innocents. She also saves a lot of people, including herself, her King, and the Jewish people.
And along the way she suffers. Suffers the loss of many pregnancies, perhaps at the hand of her nemesis, Halannah, King Xerxes’ favorite concubine. Suffers King Xerxes’ desire for said favorite concubine. Suffers, and enjoys, King Xerxes. What I hate most is how she is made to suffer indignity of any kind, and in Esther’s life there are many indignities. Because when it comes down to it, she is powerless, like all women were (and some still are) powerless. A world of men (or perhaps, ultimately, one man)–men who are often not as intelligent as Esther, who are weak, cruel, and sometimes cowardly–keep her, decidedly, in her place.
Except when they don’t.
This is what I love most about Esther, and Esther. The eunuch Hegai says to her, early on in the story,
You will have to learn to appear fierce and submissive at the same time. That is the task of womanhood, and you must master it while you are still a girl.
Esther does what she needs to do. And writes, literally (in the novel) and otherwise, her own history.