Richly sensuous feminist historical
fiction by author and activist Martha Shelley.
The Throne in the Heart of the Sea
This is an extraordinary book. Shelley’s characters step out of the 9th century as fresh and alive as tomorrow. We know their hopes, inspirations, and desires. Rage mixes with the intimacy of love in an awe-inspiring, carefully crafted reproduction of their ancient glorious and brutal world. Where else can we watch the formation of a prophet? Where else can we look at an ordinary woman from Biblical times? It gives us a chance to look at Jezebel as she develops her imperious nature, and how necessary it was for her to become imperious. Buy this book and expect to be amazed.
Review by Judy Grahn, author of Blood, Bread, and Roses
I was completely gripped by this richly sensuous historic novel of 9th century BCE, learning so much about the peoples, Hebrew and pagan, of the region. Power relations among the three main characters unfold in cliff-hanging episodes. And of course, I love identifying with [the] lesbian character in a sacred setting. My only question: when is the sequel?
Martha Shelley’s spell-binding novel, The Throne in the Heart of the Sea, brings to life the people and customs of the 9th Century BCE Middle East. It presents an alternative view of such biblical characters as Jezebel and the prophet Elijah, and introduces a character invented by Shelley, Tamar (there are at least 2 Tamars in the Bible, but the one in this book is not meant to be them.)
We first meet the main characters when they are young teens, which at that time was on the verge of adulthood. Tamar is of mixed Cushite and Israelite parentage, living in Old Tyre on the mainland. Jezebel is a princess and appears to be heir to the throne of her father, King Ittobaal of Tyre, a Canaanite city on an island off the coast of Canaan and Old Tyre. Elijah is an angry young Israelite living in Tishbe. Later, Shelley portrays Elijah observing the Goddess Asherah’s birthday and Jezebel, following her family’s tradition, becoming a priestess of Asherah. Tamar is ordained as a priestess of the Goddess Anat.
Shelley did extensive research to make sure the novel reflected the ambiance of Canaan/Phoenicia and the “northern kingdom” of Israel, but she avoided using the stilted language some authors of historical novels use in an attempt to reflect ancient times. Instead, she has written the book in today’s American English while retaining some of the terms used in the ancient near east. In fact, the characters’ narrative gets, at times, downright slangy and some characters, reflecting their lower education level, speak in ungrammatical English. For me, this makes the novel even more alive and relevant.
Shelley is also a published poet, and her inventive use of language, especially in descriptions, is one of the joys of this book for me. For example, on the first page of the novel, she writes of Tamar: “She leaped up and shrugged into her dress.” Shelley not only brings to life the people, but also the smells and tastes of the middle east in the 9th Century BCE. She describes so you can almost taste them, various foods, and sometimes even uses food as a simile or metaphor to describe people’s characteristics. For example, in the first chapter, she describes an Assyrian sailor: “His face was round as a plate with huge eyes like fried eggs, lips like slices of raw beef.” A few pages later the sailor gives Tamar “a big fried-egg wink.” The voice of another character is “as bitter as poppy juice.” Later in the book, a character’s aptitude for math is described: “She slid through the most difficult math problems as though they’d been greased with lamb fat….”
The Throne in the Heart of the Sea is also enriched by:
- Poems and song lyrics at the beginning of each chapter and scattered throughout the novel, translated into English from their original ancient languages, with Shelley rewriting them so that their diction is more contemporary.
- Maps of Tyre, Jezebel’s World, and Tamar’s Journeys by Emeline Mann Sanchez.
- Reproduction of the Seal of Jezebel, now stored in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, redrawn by Max Dashu from a “tiny photograph” Shelley brought back from Israel.
- Glossary of terms from mostly ancient Middle East languages.
- Chart of calendars comparing Canaanite, Babylonian, and Roman months.
- Shelley’s Afterword, with historical information and a summary of the biblical portrayal of these characters.