From the author of the classic travel memoir Dinner with Persephone, an accomplished poet, and frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, here is an eagerly anticipated, stunningly original novel of heartrending lyricism about four women, a fierce mythopoeia that invites us to enter into a new and powerful imagination of the sublime: What if “a woman’s point of view” were God’s?
As The Book of Heaven commences, Eve speaks about what is alleged to have happened in the Garden of Eden, a story she hardly recognizes. She tells her version of events, revealing that the constellations we are accustomed to seeing above conceal heavens with which we have yet to contend. In the four parts of the novel—The Book of Souraya, The Book of Savour, The Book of Rain, The Book of Sheba—and their accompanying proverbs, Eve accounts for four new zodiacs and teaches us how to view each and comprehend its centrality to women: a knife, a cauldron for cooking, a paradisiacal garden, lovers embracing. Each book keenly evokes the life of a woman newly freed from the old tales in which she was trapped: a metamorphosis of Sarah, Abraham’s wife; a polytheistic cook; Job’s wife; and the Queen of Sheba.
In The Book of Heaven, Patricia Storace has brilliantly and radically reimagined the worlds of these women, putting them in the foreground of their stories and of the so-called Old Testament itself.
A View from Another Heaven
We on earth navigate by the stars, so it is no wonder we have gone so far off course—since we have never seen more than a fragment of Heaven. Our knowledge of Hell is more detailed, and at least of certain regions, even thorough; we have spent so much more of our time and resources on the exploration of Hell. Hell is a much easier object of study; though it has endless variations, its nature is repetitive and unchanging. The stories of the damned told there all end the same way.
Heaven, by contrast, is infinite in a different way, endlessly reconceiving itself as the ocean does. In Heaven, the equinoxes shift; even the pole stars change places, changing what we trust and rely on, believe, what we are sure we know. You look and see, as you expect to, Polaris, now the North Star, the certainty of Heaven; but the brilliant Thuban, five thousand years ago, was once the pole star. At the time the pyramids were built, Thuban was the star that oriented us, and composed in Heaven our sense of where we were.
We can never stop searching for Heaven, since there is always more of it than we can see. There, as in those tales that evolve endlessly into other tales, stories have no end. They are hardly ever the stories you know, the official ones, in which wishes are made formal, then legislated and enforced as matters of life or death. They are more often the stories we didn’t hear, or wouldn’t believe, told by the person we ignored, the house that was razed, the choir of dry bones. The scholars of Heaven read and study the vast collection of ashes, books from the torched libraries.
Heaven is not to be confused with Paradise; I had so little time in Paradise that I cannot tell you much about it. What I know of Paradise, I know through men. But Heaven is my home, and there are things about it I will always remember, however far away from it I am now. That is why I can tell you that I have seen more than I imagined was there, even though I, too, have seen only a fraction of what exists.
The first Heaven I knew is the one we all know, the one with the constellations we have been taught to see. The sky we have inherited is a sort of celestial attic of the imagination. It contains a razor, fisher’s nets, a tennis racket, and a Polish king’s shield, among much other rubbish.
It is peopled with the violent and the anguished, warriors, archers, and weeping women. It is not a place for pardon or repentance, as the gods often placed glittering killers in sight of their glittering perpetual victims, so that there was no way for anyone to find a new relationship to anyone else. Little Ganymede, who had been abducted, shivered forever near the eagle that had seized him and brought him here. This was known as immortality. Many were there because they lived tragedies so unbearable that their suffering would have destroyed the earth if they had not been transported into Heaven.
For the gods of that Heaven had only two powers with regard to suffering. They could inflict it, often tormenting humans as proxy for their private quarrels. Many of the glowing creatures you see in Heaven are set there by way of reward for killing a human on behalf of a God, such as the Scorpion, whom I always avoided. Others are positioned there from petty divine spite, like the Crab, set there to taunt a goddess who tried and failed to have it kill a hero favored by her husband.
Some pulse with the implacable stellar reminder of the defeat of a passionate human desire. Lyra is the instrument that belonged to Orpheus, who descended to Hell for his bride, and failed to bring her out of it, despite his great love. The one inhabitant of Heaven I truly loved, Ophiuchus the Snake-Tamer, the great doctor who discovered how to resurrect humans, was killed at the request of the God of the Dead. It was a political assassination—the God of the Dead was protecting his borough. Ophiuchus was one of the few Heaven Dwellers who was still concerned with mortals; he trembled, sparkling with the agony of his pent-up will to heal them, but was thwarted by the gods’ other power over suffering.
Their second power over suffering was, in a sense, to sculpt it—to reveal it in Heaven only as it was seen and felt by them—as ecstasy. In Heaven, tears, sweat, and drops of blood are translated into the brilliance of stars, which form the bodies of the Heaven Dwellers. The gods would not let Ophiuchus tamper with suffering, that radiant and exquisite state of being.
In Heaven, there was not one pair of happy lovers. There were Perseus and Andromeda, if you count a couple happy who killed a guest at their wedding. Besides, they lived apart in Heaven; and it made me uneasy to see Andromeda, a wife still wearing the glittering chains that had bound her on her rock. There was another pair who truly loved each other, but they were allowed to meet only one day a year, before they were separated to begin another year’s yearning. I felt confined there, and unhappy. What woman wants to live in a Heaven where love can only be tragic, unfulfilled for all eternity?
I don’t say that Heaven was without passions: in fact, it was through my fleeing Orion that the revelation occurred. I was always afraid of him, knowing what everyone knew about him: that he was empty of all but lust. He had practiced the sexual lynching known as rape on Merope and others, and his last mortal act had been a biocide. He could not control his appetite to kill, and had hunted down every last living thing in a forest where the goddess Artemis refreshed herself from time to time. He piled corpse after corpse outside her lodging. He presumed to kill as if he were a God. For that presumption Artemis had the mortal killed in a display of divine artistry. Yet, the gods awarded him an influential position in Heaven.
He spent his time in Heaven stalking the Pleiades; one afternoon, he caught sight of me, and decided I would do just as well. I was walking by myself along the shining river Eridanus, lost in my own dreams, hearing and seeing nothing else. Suddenly Orion leapt in front of me, blocking my path. His eyes were narrow and glinting, with the odd fixed gaze of the possessed, who see nothing but what they desire from whatever exists.
I turned and began to run. I could hear Orion strike out after me, though I dared not turn to look. It was like being pursued by a massive oak tree that could move as swiftly as the wind through its own leaves, and was also carrying a weapon. I knew he would shoot me with his bow and arrows to bring me down. Blinded, wounded, crippled—it wouldn’t matter to him how he took me, or if I survived, as long as he succeeded in attaining his desire.
I screamed, but the scream metamorphosed in Heaven, and made a trio of the sublime duet that Aphrodite and Eros were singing, charmed at Orion’s ardor, and the lovely patterns my long hair made streaming in flight behind me as I raced for my life. Later, I learned that Aphrodite had sent a dream of this scene to a Macedonian artist, who rendered it in relief on a gold vase, though he altered it to show Orion capturing me, as I screamed mutely and exquisitely in pure gold.
In the end, though, I escaped. I saw no other course than to fling myself into Eridanus, the flowing river of stars, and let the swift current drown me or take me where it would. Even Orion could not keep up with Eridanus, and I heard his marvelous aria of psychopathic rage as I was swept farther and farther away.
The river rushed me past constellation after constellation; I closed my eyes, and let myself be carried along, and thought of nothing, not even how I might find some exit from this flood of stars.
When I opened my eyes again, still submerged in the river of light, I saw a group of strange constellations. I recognized nothing of this zodiac. One cascade of stars formed the Cluster of Grapes, another the Sheaf of Wheat. There was the Hive where Honey Bees swarmed, entering and exiting like the dust of topaz and amber. I saw the Carpenter measuring the Door with a rope of stars. Beside him, the Birthgiver suckled the Newborn with her gemmed milk, while the Cradle swung, lighting the dark.
Looking up, I saw petal after petal outlined in stars drifting down from the Hundred Roses. I passed the Judge in her Jeweled Caftan holding a pair of scales in one hand, and lifting her luminous hand, patterned with stars like henna, in a gesture of Pardon. The Seven Scholars sat above pages and pages of stars, endlessly unscrolling across the skies. Beyond them were the clusters of Singers and the Storytellers, with stars pouring from their throats. A little farther, the constellation of the Pomegranate pulsed, scattering ruby-colored stars over the darkness. The Breadmaker kneaded her round loaves, which left her hands as floating, golden moons. Stars like tiny diamonds collided inside the Wineglass. The Artist, hands full of constellations, flung them playfully into patterns and images across the skies.
I gasped. I had been swept into another Heaven.
Excerpted from The Book of Heaven by Patricia Storace. Copyright © 2014 by Patricia Storace. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.