The Book of Esther by Emily Barton
Set in Eastern Europe in 1942, in a small of nation of warrior Turkic Jews, Emily Barton has given us a novel that brings together historical vision, well-developed characters, and a plotline that moves along steadily. The main character, Esther, is a conglomeration of wisdom, shrewdness, and prophet, seeing the way in which events will soon turn out ahead of time. The women in the community forge traditional older ways of living with an eye towards mercy, helping those refugees who flee into the land with knitted hats, scarfs, and other wearable items.
One of the beautiful ways that Barton develops and brings out the character of Esther is through the combination of her received religious tradition and her experience of life as she leaves her father Josephus. Barton writes, “For three years, Esther, a legal adult had fasted on Yom Kippur, but that was different: spiritual in nature but for a purpose. And on the Day of Atonement all one did was pray and fast. Today, they’d ridden like Mongol warriors since dawn. Her back hurt, her legs thrummed…Her body needed food (46).” There is a memory of fasting and hunger but this was for a spiritual and religious purpose, and yet, her hunger on this road to war was also for a purpose, one which she didn’t presently fully understand.
Another aspect that caught my attention in the story was Seleme, the mechanical horse that ran on a 150cc engine. Barton keenly describes the horse as having much the characteristics of a fighting bull, “Seleme had been designed for war: to charge, to do battle, to retreat when necessary. All of her sensory apparatus now engaged. Her ears swiveled to the sides,…(70).” Esther quickly finds out that her father’s use of available fuel and mechanic’s work on Seleme was something she did not possess, but learned how to find the right fuel. In the desire to save Khazaria, Esther found a friend in her battle ready mechanical horse, Seleme, even surprising many on her journey, even the ferry man.
Seeking to save Khazaria from Germania, Esther sets out on a journey with little but a friend, a mechanical horse, and a wholehearted desire to do harm to her enemies. A bit of alternative history and reminiscent of the character in the Bible, Esther is a woman on a mission. This story through all its twists and turns is worth reading.
Thanks to Blogging for Books for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review