A few weeks ago, I got a very exciting surprise in the mail from Penguin Random House. It was a galley proof of Emily Barton’s newest novel, The Book of Esther. I had entered a Good Reads giveaway on Twitter because I heard the book described as “genre-bending”, a blend of historical fiction and something entirely new. I was immediately intrigued, and as soon as I tore the package open, I was reading.
“Genre-bending” is an accurate term for this novel. Barton tackles Jewish history, specifically the Holocaust, and puts instances of oppression and war in a new Europe — countries and cities are reminiscent of reality, but Khazaria is fiction. It seems she is offering an alternate path to history. The fantastical elements of this book –for example, mechanical horses — give the reader access to thinking about the events of World War II in a different way. If there really had been someone like the heroine in this novel, how would things have been different? If this occurred a thousand years ago or a thousand years from now — would genocide have been the outcome? The fictional element to the retelling of Jewish pain and history makes it more accessible, because the reader is welcomed into a story — not a straightforward lesson. It does not read like your standard World War II novel, because it isn’t. It is an exciting ride (pun intended) from the beginning.
Esther is a sturdy, brave heroine rebelling against the wishes of her father and the constraints of societal structure in order to take action for a cause she is passionate about. She and Itkah embark on a clandestine journey to find the Kabbalists, with the goal of changing her into a man so she can fight at the front lines. For fear of spoilers, I won’t say more about their journey, but you will like them. They are detailed and poignant characters with strong points of view.
Some of these points of view tackle somber undertones to this novel. The relationship between Esther and Itkah is a commentary on slavery and morality. Her feelings for two boys have her wrestling with religious feelings and sexual confusion. Power and government are elements to her relationship with her father, in a military position of leadership at Khazaria.
At it’s surface, this book is absolutely about Jewish history and a fictional retelling of World War II’s devastating events. But the aforementioned themes create a deep, nuanced story. My only complaint is that I wanted more. The ending is not an ending in the neatly-tied up way we crave in novels, but this book is still worth reading. It was published just this week! Check it out ❤