Pearl in the Sand is an exceptionally readable retelling of the Rahab story from the Book of Joshua in the Bible.
Rahab is sold into prostitution in the booming and lawless metropolis of Jericho at the tender age of 15 when her farming family becomes destitute. There, she works her way up to become the key innkeeper in the city, having earned enough money to build her own inn within the bordering infamous walls of the great city centre. The more Rahab hears about the one true God of the Hebrews, the more curious she becomes. Having always been conflicted by her forced profession, she wonders if there is a God of compassion to withstand the pagan gods of the temples peppering her town. When two Hebrew spies arrive at her inn, Rahab is met with a choice: act in a great and dangerous leap of faith, or ensure her comfort and safety and wealth are retained.
Unlike most fictionalized accounts of Rahab’s famous Old Testament story, the famous portion of Rahab and the spies takes only the first third of the book. From there, we are walked through Rahab’s joining of the Israelites, immersing herself in their faith, eyeing from distance the great battles fought between Hebrews and foes and her growing attraction with great military leader, Salmone.
Both Rahab and Salmone are the crux of the story and are both equally well-developed: their lives and budding relationship interspersed with the great canvas which highlights the many famous acts and stories surrounding Joshua: from the tumbling of the walls by trumpeting fervor, through Aichan’s sin and some of the great battles fought, to the day the sun stood still. Joshua, a well-rounded peripheral character and sage voice offers many intriguing moments of illicit faith. I applaud Tessa Afshar for colouring the story in such a unique light and focusing on tenets of the book usually left un-realized in other fictionalized versions of the tale. Afshar is very confident in how her painting and portrayal of a troubled relationship will offer a great light when mended and string a strong lineage (from Rahab and Salmone’s son Boaz onward ) to the coming of Christ in the New Testament. Afshar’s research is evident and I was captivated by the tent rituals of the Hebrew women, the focus on hospitalization and medicine after the gory battles of the field and the day-to-day life of a burgeoning nation as it struggled to find its own place ----away from the long provided-manna and leadership of Moses, leaving the wilderness years long behind. I must also commend Afshar’s battle sequences. They were wonderfully rendered and were very realistic. I felt my heart pulsing as she cited almost immeasurable odds.
Great Biblical fiction can do well at extrapolating an imagined (and believable ) backstory to a few verses blatantly transcribed. I felt deeply for Rahab and her insecurities about her impurity and her past and her desire to become worthy of the God who will save her and the new husband who obviously loves her, no matter his initial reticence to wholly embrace her past. This was a strong theme painted and very encouraging to those of us who doubt how an unconditional love could reach us. Stronger in thematic depth and precision, I preferred the backlight to this story to the famous (overhyped?) Redeeming Love: a grandiose re-setting of a popular tale.
The book, however, is not completely without fault. Afshar errs at breaking tone and timbre by inserting decidedly distracting modern humour and sarcasm. Characters are said to “roll their eyes” and some of their familiar interactions complete detract from the verisimilitude surging through so much of the book. Indeed, I ended up rolling my eyes. Afshar was forced in these moments trying so hard to mete her characters with human warmth and frailty: but rather than eliciting a smile, they just made me cringe in awkwardness. That being said, 75% percent of the novel was expertly penned, the dialogue ( when not straining to match the perceived need for audience humour )_ was acute and the historical detail was fascinating.