Previously, Margaret George has written powerful novels peopled with historical figures already quite familiar to us: Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, and Cleopatra. Read any one of them and you feel --- not that you are meeting someone new --- but that you are getting much better aquatinted with someone who has always been in your life, albeit peripherally.
But with MARY CALLED MAGDALENE, George was challenged to invent more than she could recreate. Very little has been known about this woman who walked with Jesus and has been called a prostitute, a female-divinity figure, and church leader.
Meeting the challenge and rising to it, George has written a compelling tale of a woman who walks out of her life as Jewish wife and mother to walk beside Jesus and become one of his apostles.
It would be easy to write a novel about Mary Magdalene, Jesus, Judas, and the other Apostles and lose the reader in didactic abstractions and lengthy religious tracts. But while George's Jesus preaches to his followers, the author never preaches to her readers. And while the characters have strong spiritual sides, George never crosses the line and forgets that she is writing a novel.
As with each George novel, readers are totally immersed in time and place, this time transported to the Middle East of Biblical times. But rather than feeling like we are getting a history lesson, we are treated to a rich and dramatic novel.
We first meet the child Mary of Magdala in the first hundred years of the first millennium. The daughter of a successful fish processor, Mary is raised in a religiously observant family in the town of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. When she finds an ivory idol --- with half closed eyes and sensual lips --- she secrets it away and keeps it, although it is against all Jewish teachings to worship graven images.
The idol turns out to be a demon who speaks to Mary and then comes to possess her. After her marriage and the birth of her daughter, other demons come to haunt her, until finally Mary is near death from madness.
Seeking cure after cure she winds up having to abandon her husband and child to go into exile in the desert --- to either be killed by the spirits that possess her, or to be rid of them forever.
And it is then that Mary meets Jesus, who commands the evil spirits to leave her. Through his healing she is initiated as his disciple and ultimately has to make choices that wrench her heart and test her spirit.
Weaving together hints from the New Testament, Gnostic gospels, and other ancient texts, MARY CALLED MAGDALENE brings to life a woman about whom we have known too little for far too long. George's Mary, "Apostle to the Apostles" and companion to Jesus, is a strong, independent woman, and her fictional biography is a compelling and worthwhile read.
Reviewed by M. J. Rose (www.mjrose.com). M. J.Rose's newest novel is FLESHTONES. on January 22, 2011