There are books that show up unexpectedly in your life, books you never asked for, and, more significantly, you didn’t know you needed in your life. Typically, these books catch your eye one lazy summer afternoon when you enter a bookstore, not really looking for something but in the mood to be surprised by something unusual.
That is how I came across The Book of Heaven; I found a copy in perfect condition in a used bookstore in the very heart of downtown Toronto when I wandered in with a friend. It was the cover that drew me in, a multifaceted crystal with fragments of the sky at daytime and nighttime, as well as the mystical-sounding title. Reading the summary, I couldn’t help but think of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, the effect of which I still feel even after a couple months have passed since reading it. Despite the internal debate I felt about buying the book right away or taking it out from the library first, partially due to the rather mixed reviews I found online, there was something that compelled me to take this book, an inner voice that said I’d regret it if I didn’t. It turns out it was a very wise little voice, because now I cannot imagine what it would be like if this book hadn’t entered my life.
There is a certain poetic style of storytelling that I have long felt has been lost in modern literature, namely the ability to tell an enticing story without rushing. The kind of story that is similar to eating a slice of overly sweet cake—the taste is astounding, but your stomach frequently reminds you to take it a bite at a time in order to avoid spoiling the effect. That is exactly the kind of effect that Storace elicited, bringing about a whimsical and powerful feminist novel that addresses the issues women faced over the course of history, retelling stories from the Bible in which the women are the heroines; the source of enlightenment and power that men have tried to silence and snuff out for centuries. In fact, it is the kind of book that we need more than ever in our society, serving as a reminder that many of the events described in the four parts of the novel–the books of Souraya, Savour, Rain, and Sheba—are in fact still occurring to this day.
The Book of Heaven opens with a young woman, who the reader later learns is Eve, running through the starry night sky amidst the constellations. She eventually ends up in another heaven, an alternative starry sky with four completely new constellations, each named after the aforementioned women. Each of the women tell Eve their story, the story that is associated with their constellation, and bestows a gift upon her, a gift she takes with her as she descends down to earth and forgets that Heaven is more than simply constellations.
The stories told by the four women might trigger some readers, as they overtly address the sexist ways women are treated as inferior beings, and the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse they sustained in the hands of patriarchal society. Yet Storace’s writing is much more than simply stating wrongdoings: it is one that offers answers in the form of hope; a call for persistence, patience, strength, and, most importantly, love. She masterfully reinvents the story of Abraham’s wife Sarah, or slips in a retelling of Noah’s ark that is starkly different from the widespread version. In the final pages, when Queen Sheba is visiting baby Jesus, Storace states how historical depictions have mistaken Sheba for her son Balthazar, crediting him instead for gracing Heaven’s child with a gift. And though this is a work of fiction, in her examples and retellings there is a beaming ray of truth; since women have been erased and undermined throughout history for so long, it wouldn’t be a shock if her versions actually were the truth.
Every time I sat down to read The Book of Heaven, I forgot both where I was and what year I was living in; the writing was simply timeless. It was also much more successful in reminding me of the continued struggles women face than the more extreme feminist campaigns that often create more controversy than solutions. I was reminded of just how amazing it feels to be a woman, and how grateful I feel for the body and skills I have, for women are indeed a mystical creation to be celebrated. There are surely many more things that can be said about The Book of Heaven, which has now found its way onto my list of all-time favorites—indeed, there were so many memorable passages I underlined in it that they filled up almost four pages of my notebook! But it is one of the lines on the final page of the book, part of the Proverbs of Sheba that followed her story, that not only summarizes the journey on which the book took me, but that is probably the reason why this hidden gem deserves so much more attention than it has received:
Thousands of years before we read and wrote; thousands more before we love.