“This Wild Fabulous World“
A Review of
Eve: A Novel of the First Woman.
by Elissa Elliott
By Chris Smith.
Eve: A Novel of the First Woman.
Hardcover: Delacorte, 2009.
[ This book was sent to us as part of The Ooze‘s Select Blogger Program…]
Eve, the debut novel from Elissa Elliott, is a finely crafted tale of not only humankind’s first woman, but also her family and especially her daughters. Elliott frames this novel around the biblical account of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-4, but using her imagination and some thorough research on this era of human history, she fleshes out this story into an engaging storyline, including a few twists that might take some readers by surprise. Take Eve’s daughters, for instance; although not mentioned in the scriptural account, Elliott imagines Eve to have had three daughters: Naava, Aya, and Dara, all of whom were younger than Cain and Abel, the most prominent of Adam and Eve’s children in the Genesis story. Each chapter paints a scene that is centered around one of the four women in the first family. The chapters on Eve, as well as those on Aya and Dara, are told in the first person. The chapters on Naava, however, are told in the third person because Elliott “needed to put information in her chapters she couldn’t possibly know.” This shift in perspective, however, is done subtly and doesn’t interfere with the larger story.
Elliott tells this tale in crisp, vivid prose, with a keen sense of the psychological, relational and spiritual dramas that unfolded at the dawn of human history. In these regards, her style is particularly reminiscent of the fiction of Frederick Buechner, perhaps most like Son of Laughter, given the common biblical framework and backdrop of ancient human history. Like Buechner, Elliott breathes life into characters that experience a full range of human emotions: love and rage, faith and doubt, etc. The fruits of these passions – sex, murder, betrayal, loyalty – are depicted in clear, but honest terms that poignantly reflect the struggles and intentions of the characters. Eve concludes her story: “We were a tragic pair, Adam and I, but let me tell you this: We loved each other with a deep ferocity. More than either of us could ever express. We knew labor and pain and sorrow and dissonance, and this had only served to enrich and strengthen our marriage.” (406)
This depiction of Adam and Eve’s marriage is indicative of the darkness that lurks just beneath the surface of this story, a darkness that bears the ring of truth for many readers. However, the story is not consumed by its darkness, as is most vividly seen in the trajectory of its main character. From the heights of life in
I am at peace now. My hands and feet and eyes and heart see Elohim every day, maybe not in the way I expect, but He is there, waiting to be discovered. [Adam] and I had our differences, true, but after that heart breaking summer when Abel died we came together again, like many strands of rope plaited together, rendering it stronger, tougher. (407)
Thus, following in the footsteps of Buechner and those of writers like Flannery O’Connor, Nikos Kazantzakis and Walker Percy, Elliott creates a world of deep and twisted brokenness, and yet one that is saturated with an even deeper hope.
Much of the dramatic tension in Eve is rooted in the relationships that Eve and Adam’s family have with the pagan tribe whose city is the family’s closest neighbor. The existence of this people might prove theologically troublesome to some readers, but Elliott takes the existence of other peoples as axiomatic, a helpful way to explain some of the difficult parts of the Genesis account that imply the possibility of other peoples – e.g. Cain’s taking of a wife, or the questions of who God was protecting Cain from when God cursed him for killing Abel. The idols of this pagan people, chief of whom was Inanna, prove tempting for Adam and Eve’s family, especially early on in the novel when they are acutely feeling the distance of Elohim. These gods are particularly tempting for Cain, who syncretistically worships both Elohim and these pagan gods, in order to cover all his religions bases. The riches of the city, many of which have come in trade with other peoples, also prove tempting to the first family.
Through Eve’s occasional flashbacks to life in the Garden of Eden, Elliott covers the full story of Eve and Adam creating a rich context in which the doubt and struggles of their life in exile are made credible. At the end of one such flashback, Eve uses the analogy of a grafted tree to describe how she and Adam had been joined together and joined to Elohim. Of life outside the garden she concludes “I felt cut off from Adam, shorn from the main stem of our love [Elohim], and pruned so far back that any growth was impossible.” (67).
The fallen world in which Eve and her family live is one of both deep sorrow and great joy. In an eloquent flourish at the end of the book Elliott pens the following words spoken by Eve:
Belief is not always easy.
It is equal parts doubt and astonishment and gratitude and confusion.
And then you see how deeply colored the sky is, how the grass is so sharply fragrant, how the fields are a dazzling gold, and you have to step back and breathe in this wild fabulous world. We live in the space of abundant questions and inadequate answers. How else can we live?
Open your heart, and all the uncertainty fills it—the dimpled earth, the generous sky, the shaking flowers—all of it crowding into your grateful heart. Don’t you see?
Everything ordinary is extraordinary and points to one luminous thing, to a love that has already given its response. You have only to receive it (408).
Indeed, this world is the same one in which we live today, the world that has been passed down to us from Eve and Adam through many generations. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but for this insightful depiction our world in Eve, I am glad that it was recommended to me and that I picked it up and savored its story. You would do well to do likewise.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com