SAN DIEGO—In the opening chapter of Zoe Klein’s debut novel, Drawing in the Dust, readers may feel they understand narrator Page Brookstone better than she herself does. The novel opens as Page, an archaelogist nearing her fortieth birthday, wakes before sunrise to prepare for her daily walk to Megiddo, where she has been a senior researcher for twelve years.
Though she has a car, she prefers to start her day savoring what she describes as the rosemary, mint, and diesel-tinged air and enjoying the full length of her stride before spending the day crouching in the dust. Page is a deeply sensual woman, noticing every detail of the way the sun shines on her arms and bleaches out the purple in the clouds, but she is trapped in an environment made miserable by Norris Anderson, the primary investigator at Megiddo, who has never forgotten that she rejected the drunken pass he once made.
It’s clear she has shut herself down emotionally and is struggling to retain her dignity and remain inspired by work that has become monotonous. Then, when Norris snobbishly ridicules a Palestinian couple who appear at the dig asking for help finding out if the spirits haunting their house are living in an undiscovered ruin underneath, Page impulsively decides to leave her work at Megiddo to investigate.
When the floor of the couple’s house gives way to reveal a huge cistern covered with murals undisturbed since Biblical times, Page feels as alive as when she discovered the poetic fire of the prophets as a theology student. “When I was immersed in Bible studies at divinity school,” she says, “verses seemed to materialize to me wherever I went, scripted into brick, bark, and the migration of birds, Sacred words would fall into my lashes like snowflakes. However, there has been so little for a long, long while, until this moment, and I am washed with gratitude. I feel that a part of my heart…has been opened again to me. That I’ve been presented, in this cistern, with a key.”
The cistern does indeed hold a key, but not just to the mystery of the spirits whose shape can be observed in the clouds of steam in the Barakat’s bathroom. It sets in motion a process of discovery of her own heart, and a growing sense of rootedness in a self that had always been too deep and too risky to explore. What sets this process in motion is her discovery of a hidden room beyond the cistern, where the bones of the prophet Jeremiah lie entwined with those of a woman, Anatiya. A scroll in a sealed jar tells, in Anatiya’s own words, a story of overwhelming passion played out over years between the gray-bearded prophet and the young woman who devoted her life to him.
The Scroll of Anatiya, excerpts from which open each chapter, is the work of Klein herself. The senior rabbi of a Los Angeles
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congregation, she recounts in the afterword to the book that of all the works she studied in seminary, she “fell most deeply in
love with Jeremiah.” Before beginning Drawing in the Dust, she had written Anatiya’s scroll as a fifty-two chapter book paralleling in style and content the JPS versions of Jeremiah’s own writings. She had wanted to reach out over the centuries to give comfort to the anguished prophet by “weav[ing] an enduring love into his terror-filled days.”
A parallel story of forbidden passion slowly and tentatively evolves between Page (a Christian) and archaeologist Mortichai Masters (an Orthodox Jew) as Page’s life is turned upside down in the chaotic aftermath of her discovery
Relegating her feelings for Mortichai to the background, Page secretly begins translating the scroll before unscrupulous academics can stunt and spin Anatiya’s voice, and shocked Fundamentalist Christians can quash what they view as a scandal by destroying the poignant and often erotic scroll altogether. Controversy also erupts into violence as the Haredim, demanding that Halakhah be observed by immediately reburying the bones, clash with scholars who want to study the remains. All of this Klein relates with a deft hand, creating a narrative that is at once riveting and educational.
Klein gives the reader a glimpse into the scholarly side of archaeology, as Page is both excoriated for academic piracy and praised as an anti-establishment hero for absconding with photographs of the scroll. Klein also works in a great deal of information about life in Israel through secondary characters such as the spiky-haired and pierced teenagers who volunteer to work with Page, and the Palestinian couple who react with good humor as their house is turned into a world-famous site.
Mortichai is the most important of these characters. Through him, Klein paints a sympathetic portrait of a man returning after years of secular life to his Orthodox Jewish roots, a man for whom honoring the dead is important enough to volunteer at the scene of suicide bombings to pick up human remains, and for whom loyalty to community is so strong that he has agreed to marry a widow he does not love. A relationship between Page and Mortichai seems as impossible as one between Jeremiah and Anatiya, but their ancient bones suggest that love may still be the strongest force of all. And then again, as Page knows from Proverbs, “if you dig a pit, you will fall in it.” With a history of lost relationships at her back, she feels herself teetering on the edge again.
Drawing in the Dust is a masterful debut by an author from whom we can wholeheartedly hope to read more. Though her dialogue can at times feel stilted enough to pull one out of the story, this book is full of vivid descriptions, sensual imagery, interesting characters, genuine dilemmas, and compelling action. This would make an excellent choice for book clubs.