Ancient feminism

Jennifer Lipman reviews Simon’s Wife by L. M. Affrossman


I could hardly fail to be intrigued by a book titled Simon’s Wife (Sparsile Books, £9.99), considering that’s an exact description of myself. And the premise of the novel by L. M. Affrossman was right up my street; a fictionalised retelling of the Judean-Roman war that led to the destruction of the second temple, told from the perspective of the wife of the commander of the Jewish forces.

Shelamzion, the 19-year-old wife of Simon bar Giora, is a rarity in the ancient world, an educated, headstrong woman and more than a match for her imposing husband. As Simon attempts to rid Jerusalem of the Romans and as war wages not only with them but with several other Jewish factions, she battles beside him as a trusted adviser. But the clock is ticking for Simon — a real figure documented in history not as the flawed hero Affrossman depicts but as a bloodthirsty and hubristic tyrant — and we first meet Shelamzion in a Roman prison cell, telling her story to a kindly politician.

Affrossman’s style of storytelling echoes Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, fascinating novels reimagining the ancient world through the eyes of previously voiceless heroines.

Unfortunately, Simon’s Wife is not in that league. That’s not to say the book is without merit. Shelamzion — unnamed in Josephus’s writings on the era, therefore entirely Affrossman’s creation — is an engaging protagonist; a passionate and thoroughly modern character designed for a feminist audience. And Affrossman’s research must have been exhaustive; she deserves credit for bringing an unknown era to life in such a vivid and detailed way. It’s timely, too; the internecine conflict she documents has hardly disappeared in the intervening millennia.

But the book could have done with a good edit. It is overwritten in frequently flowery prose and the dialogue feels contrived. Endless passages are devoted to the tribal conflicts and minor figures from different Jewish factions, which, unless you are an expert on the second temple era, can be confusing and, by the end, my interest was weakened because I knew the Jews were doomed to fail.

Women of ancient times certainly deserve to have their stories told; the many unnamed wives and daughters are owed more than passing mentions in the histories. Afrossman is not without skill and Simon’s Wife has the makings of a great novel; it just isn’t there yet.

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