Wondering which questions really only have one answer,
By Geraldine Brooks, Author of People of the Book
"How come your novels always have vicars in them?"
The question came as part of the Q and A after a talk I'd given on my second novel, March, whose protagonist is a minister with the Union Army during the Civil War. My first novel, Year of Wonders, had featured a clergyman leading a rural Derbyshire village through a year of plague. My questioner had no way of knowing it, but the novel I was just then finishing, People of the Book, also had a priest in it. And a rabbi. And an imam. Sort of like the set up for a bad joke. I hadn't consciously set out to write about religious people and yet they kept popping up in my fiction like uninvited guests at a party. I mumbled something about being attracted to stories of the past, when religious leaders loomed so large in people's lives, shaping fates and dictating behavior. But later I realized that answer was woefully incomplete.
My life has been one big oscillation between the attractions and the repulsions of faith. Raised Catholic in an old-fashioned, heady and sensuous Baroque style (incense, Angelus bells, lace mantillas, dripping wax and stained glass; the gleaming starburst of the monstrance and the litanies of Mary that taught me metaphor -- Lily of Valley, Mystic Rose, Star of the Sea) I had felt the disconnect very early between what the prayers said and how the people around me lived: "To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears" was an odd sort of prayer for merry little schoolgirls growing up in the sun-splashed, hedonistic paradise that was Sydney in the early 1970s. By the time I was a teenager I'd decided it was all a patriarchal plot to suppress women and thwart positive social change, buying people off with fairy tales about rewards in the next world instead of a decent life in this one. And I hated the way religion so often isolated people into little gnarly knots of Us and Them.
I was an atheist. So why did I pray? Whenever I heard and ambulance siren, the little thought balloon would go up: "Please help them." There was no recipient for this message, I knew that. Nor the other kind: "Thank you for this" -- sunshine, seascape, flower, glass of good wine, loaf of bread.
In 1984 I married a Jew and converted to his faith, not that he actually had one, being an even more strident atheist than I was. Most people were baffled by my decision: "You don't believe in God, why would you do that?" God, I explained, had nothing to do with it. It was all about history. Since Judaism is passed through the maternal line (a fact I admired for its hard headed pragmatism as well as its feminist implications) there was no way I was going to become the end of a line of tradition that had made it through Roman sackings, Babylonian exile, Spanish Inquisition, Russian pogrom and Shoah. To have a child who would not be a Jew was, to me, the same thing as adding one more loss to the toll of the Holocaust.
And I like the prayers: the mournful, sinuous melodies and the hard plosive consonants of Hebrew words that sounded like a desert wind slapping against a goat hair tent. They're my kind of prayers, mostly; little noticings of the good things in life, like the bread and wine, the first crescent of new moon, the dew on the grass in the morning. And I felt comfortable with the fact that in synagogue, what you bow to is not a deity, but a book.
Salman Rushdie once observed that there's a God-shaped hole in modern life. I fill it by prayers that go wafting off to no fixed address, and by writing novels about people who believe in a way that remains mysterious, elusive and fascinating to me.
©2008 Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March and Year of Wonders and the nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence. Previously. Brooks was a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East. Born and raised in Australia, she lives on Martha's Vineyard with her husband Tony Horwitz, their son Nathaniel, and three dogs.