I picked this book up after seeing an advert for a talk with the author at Southwark Cathedral which just so happened to be while I was in London (this never happens!). I booked onto the event straight away, and the kindle version of the book was only 99p, so I dug straight in. Unfortunately, the event was cancelled for personal reasons, but I’m so glad that the event was what caused me to pick the book up in the first place, as it was fantastic.
“Reading requires imagination. As we read, we see in our mind’s eye the characters, the setting, the events as they unfold. This is why seeing a well-loved book in film or on the stage can be so disappointing; if the imagination of the director is different from our own it looks all wrong. “
I’ve never considered before reading a book like this, fiction but heavily based around facts from the Bible. The story (as you can probably guess) revolves around a character called Phoebe, who delivered one of Paul’s letters to Rome, and her reception and subsequent life in Rome.
It’s something I’ve never really thought of before – reading the Bible, it’s easy to just think about how it applies now, but I’ve not spent much time thinking about how the letter would have been received in those times. The book was also beautifully written, the phrasing, the timing, just everything about it made me smile and want to devour the book – take this from the very start:
“The resonant, almost melodic, voice of the reader had at last fallen silent. The final syllables of the letter seemed to hang for a few moments and then waft out into the humid air of the Roman summer evening. All around the garden a silence settled; a silence so profound that Phoebe heard, or at least thought she heard, a solitary leaf part company from the plant next to her and flutter slowly to the ground. Only then did she realise that she was holding her breath, and the odd tingling at the end of her nose suggested that it was some time since she had last remembered to breathe. “
I think I genuinely got chills when I read this for the first time, and many other parts like it, just beautiful descriptions that made me hold my breath while I was reading.
We read a lot of (imagined) back-story of Phoebe, bringing to life what it was like to live in those times, and especially for a woman in the Church. I will warn you, some of Phoebe’s story was heartbreaking and left me a little broken at times.
“Forgetting wasn’t an option. So instead I learnt to live one tiny step at a time. I also learnt that life is like a bubbling stream. It does just carry on, whether you want it to or not. Sometimes the best thing to do, even amid the greatest blackness and despair, is to surrender to its movement, to let it carry you along with it . . . and so I did. “
I really appreciated the personal relationships that unfolded throughout the book, it made it so engaging and brought real warmth to the characters. I also really appreciated the fact that the last section of the book was full of references to elements that the author had added to the story – it was so well researched, I was very impressed!
There were so many quotes that stood out to me while I was reading that I could probably have highlighted half my kindle, but some stuck out to me more than others.
“The message of Jesus is offensive.’ Junia shrugged. ‘For those who love success, he represents failure; for those who are comfortable, he brings disquiet; he topples those who know themselves to be right; he disturbs those who are pleased with themselves. I’d be more upset if they weren’t offended. I sometimes wonder what the Good News of Jesus will look like when it doesn’t upset people any more.’ “
Two thousand years on from when this was ‘written’, and this is possibly more true than ever – the message of Jesus is difficult, and we’ve seen this in our church recently when learning more about justice – it’s not something that sits comfortably with everyone, but the fact that it’s disquieting means we’re doing it right, we’re growing and learning about what being a follower of Jesus really means.
“What I’m suggesting is that with the Holy Spirit the most surprising, delightful things can happen. Prayer isn’t like giving in your order for hot food: submitted one moment and delivered the next. But prayer does place us in God’s presence. Prayer opens us up to see what God is already doing. Prayer invites God to be present at the heart of what we’re worried about. “
As I said before, the talk I was going to was cancelled, but the vicar at my church has said he’ll look into it and see if he can perhaps ask the author to come up north for another talk, which would be absolutely fantastic. I could tell when reading the book that the subject is something the author has real passion for, and I’d love to hear her talk.
Hopefully I’ve managed to make this book sound compelling and you’re already on your way to pick up a copy, and I’ll definitely be looking out for more books like this (fiction/non-fiction) in the future, really really great.