MARY, CALLED MAGDALENE

Margaret George, Author . Viking $27.95 (528p) ISBN 978-0-670-03096-5

George, whose niche is historical and biographical novels, begins this one ploddingly with suspenseless reportage on Mary Magdalene's pleasant, middle-class childhood in a prosperous fishing village. Scattered references to the idol/demon that will eventually possess Mary are intended as fateful omens, but her slow road to madness gets much less play than her conventional and uninteresting life. The novel improves considerably when Mary finds herself possessed by one demon, and then, helplessly, by six more. Her valiant efforts to first hide her possession and then find a cure are masterfully described. When a prophet named Jesus finally casts out her demons, she celebrates, only to realize that she must make a heartrending choice between following the prophet or going back to her husband, baby and extended family. At this point, George's novel becomes a safe, though readable, retelling of the gospels. Her main deviation from orthodoxy is her insistence that there were 16 disciples—12 men and four women—who were equal in Jesus' eyes. Additionally, George emphasizes Mary's prophetic visions and Jesus' celebration of them, and in doing so gives credence to gnostic accounts of mysticism among the disciples. While some may compare this novel with Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, it bears a much stronger resemblance to Walter Wangerin's biographical novel about the apostle Paul. Like Wangerin's work, this imagines nothing seriously objectionable to even the most devout Christians. As such, it lacks the transgressive power of The Red Tent, but is still a well-researched and thought-provoking book. (June)

Reviewed on: 05/13/2002
Release date: 06/01/2002
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