Belief matters in a dangerous world

10th March 2006 at 00:00
The Garden By Elsie V Aidinoff Doubleday pound;12.99

Forged in the Fire By Ann Turnbull Walker Books pound;6.99

Heretic By Sarah Singleton Simon and Schuster pound;5.99

Under the Persimmon Tree By Suzanne Fisher Staples Walker Books Pounds 6.99

Elaine Williams reviews four novels that raise questions of faith and persecution

It took Elsie V Aidinoff seven years to write The Garden, her provocative, illuminating and playful retelling of the story of Genesis and Adam and Eve's expulsion from Paradise. One can understand why; she has not left the smallest pebble unturned in this greatest and most familiar of creation myths. A morning in church, a reading from the third chapter of Genesis and a sense of frustration that once again God and Adam are blaming Eve for the introduction of sin into the world, led Elsie Aidinoff, a volunteer in New York schools for many years and mother of four grown-up children, to take off on a flight of fancy leading to this accomplished first novel. The Garden is a lyrically scripted, refreshing, reflective, mischievous exploration of Genesis and its ambiguous symbolism.

How is it that God, the loving creator, can turn the lovers out of Eden? In The Garden he is portrayed as Elohim, the mighty one, intimidating, demanding: the God who has control, but the God who is also petulant and vengeful. Why does Adam take Eve's word and bite the apple? The Garden shows him as a likeable but rather simple soul, ready, if somewhat lazily at times, to do God's bidding, even if that means forcing Eve into sex against her will. But this book is not a crude feminist tract; Adam is not a malevolent rapist but the puppet of a God, "drunk with intellectual excitement" like the "brilliant scientists who created the Atom bomb", impatient to prove his theories with "no understanding of the human cost".

Eve, on the other hand, is a thinker, an explorer, an artistic force with the serpent as her guide and mentor. In Matthew's gospel, Christ tells his disciples to be as wise as serpents; in the Old Testament, Moses lifts up the serpent in the wilderness as a symbol of healing and salvation.

Aidinoff extends this ambiguity. All young people question the nature of the world they live in and The Garden will serve as a wonderful provocation. On occasion, her fancy turns preposterous, but after reading the poetic narrative, full of light and witticism, the phrase "In the beginning..." will take on a new significance.

Three other novels explore the nature of both divinity and religious persecution. Forged in the Fire, by Ann Turnbull, is the much awaited sequel to No Shame, No Fear, shortlisted in 2004 for the Whitbread children's book award and the Guardian children's fiction prize. It continues the love story of Will and Susanna and delves into the secret Quaker community at the time of the Great Fire, when it was widely believed that fire, plague and pestilence were signs of God's retribution for man's sinfulness. Will and Susanna's trials and tribulations, their separation and Will's struggle to remain faithful to Quaker ideals of simplicity and truth, even on pain of imprisonment, are all heightened by this apocalyptic backcloth. Ann Turnbull writes with clarity and power, drawing the reader into the inner turmoil of credible characters.

The persecution of Catholics under Queen Elizabeth I and the torture and execution of "witches" in the early Middle Ages are neatly linked in an accomplished historical fantasy novel, Heretic, by Sarah Singleton.

Singleton, who won the Booktrust teenage prize for her first novel, Century, has created a gripping and impressively inventive tale based on the nature of pre-Christian beliefs and the turbulence of Catholic history.

She has entwined the fate of two girls, Isabella, the daughter of a woman hanged as a witch in the 13th century, and Elizabeth, whose Catholic family is hunted for harbouring priests in the 16th. Heretic provides lashings of fascinating historical insight, spiced with Gothic visions of faeries and goblins and relayed in evocative prose.

Under the Persimmon Tree is surely a book for our time. Like The Kite Flyer, it provides a heart-wrenching insight into war-torn Afghanistan through two very different lives. Both Elaine, an American waiting for her doctor husband to return from the war, and Najmah, a young girl caught between the Taliban and American bombs, look to the infinite wisdom and mystery of the stars for answers and solace. This beautifully crafted novel is full of empathy as well as dramatic tension and will provide young people with insight into where the beliefs of Islam and Christianity coincide.

* See RE subject focus on pages 22-29

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