Click here to read reviewer Deanna Couras Goodson's take on The Song of Hannah.
It is quite a risk whenever a writer brings Biblical figures to life in a novel, but Eva Etzioni-Halevy does justice to two women from the Old Testament - Hannah and Pninah - who are featured in Samuel I. While the novel recounts all the details of Hannah's and Pninah's lives as described in the Old Testament, Etzioni-Halevy also adds fictional details to humanize each character and give them more depth. Interestingly enough, the Bible doesn't particularly chronicle Pninah's life in any detail and makes her out to be villainous, but Etzioni-Halevy depicts her in a sympathetic light. Both characters are strong-willed, intelligent women who are portrayed with poignancy and tenderness.
In ancient Israel, two young women's fates are intertwined when they first become friends, then rivals, as they both take the same man for their husband. Pninah, the first wife, has her husband Elkanah's lust, but not his heart. She bears him several children but is full of despair for the lack of love in her life until she starts up a fiery and passionate affair with a Canaanite man. Hannah, the second wife, is her husband's soulmate and the love of his life but cannot ignite the same lust in him that he has for Pninah. Hannah is barren for many years, and Pninah, still feeling betrayed that her former friend would agree to marry her husband, flaunts her fertility in front of Hannah. During a religious pilgrimage, Hannah makes an offering to God that brings her a son, Samuel, who will become one of Israel's greatest prophets. It is through Samuel that both Hannah's and Pninah's lives will change dramatically, and they will be reunited as friends and allies.
The fact that the book's title focuses solely on Hannah confuses me. Pninah gets as much of a voice as Hannah does. Etzioni-Halevy intersperses chapters by both women, so that two perspectives on the same events are offered. I actually found Pninah to be the more interesting of the two women, even though she is not the mother of a prophet. She exudes sexuality and raw eroticism, while the beautiful Hannah remains chaste and proper. It is through Pninah that the darkest sides of the male characters are revealed. Even Samuel has a dark, very human side that is only revealed through Pninah.
The attention to detail is impressive. Etzioni-Halevy transports the reader to ancient Israel - from the food consumed, the way medicine is practiced, the manner of worship, and the cosmetics and clothing worn, to the way an Israelite home was laid out. Yet despite the antiquity of the tale, the story is told in a fresh and modern way. The Bible only allows some women a limited voice and others no voice at all, but here, Hannah and Pninah are both eloquent. In the novel, they are scribes and teachers, occupations that were not available to most women in those times. Torah law requires that they be submissive to their husband, but they secretly find ways to defy him, especially Pninah. She also questions Torah law and social conventions. And neither Hannah nor Pninah, predictably, support polygamy. While the novel is not necessarily feminist, it takes a rather misogynistic society and turns it on its head.
The Song of Hannahdoes not disappoint. It is engrossing without being preachy, spiritual without being overly religious. It takes two women who only have a small part in the Bible and makes them very accessible and very real. I look forward to reading Etzioni-Halevy's upcoming novels, and I highly recommend this book to everyone, religious or not.