Persian King Xerxes heralded Queen Esther as "the most beautiful woman from India to Ethiopia," and when Esther looked on Xerxes she saw a man "taller, broader and more godlike than any man she had ever seen."
Rebecca Kanner, who re-imagined the life of Noah's wife in her 2013 novel "Sinners and the Sea," again takes readers into the life of one of the heroines of the Bible, re-creating the story of Esther in this first-person narrative. The novel begins in 480 B.C., just outside the Persian capital city of Shushan. Fourteen-year-old Esther and 99 other young women are kidnapped by Xerxes' soldiers and marched to his palace where they will serve in his harem. Esther's great beauty stuns everyone in the palace, and when she's sent to Xerxes' bedchamber, he is smitten and she becomes his queen.
Esther, born Hadassah, hides a dangerous secret. She's Jewish, and, according to her servant Ruti, the fate of all Jews is in her hands. Some of Xerxes' unscrupulous advisers want him to kill all the Jews and take their property.
It's high drama, taken straight from the Bible, and it easily could have stood on its own as the pillar that supports a gripping story. Unfortunately, Kanner invents a platonic romance between Esther and Erez, the soldier who brought her to Xerxes' palace and who later becomes her bodyguard. It's a subplot that lacks credibility, adds no value to the narrative and detracts from the bigger story of Esther proclaiming her faith and saving her people.
Kanner's portrayal of harem life is colorful, sensual and exotic, and the relationship between Xerxes and Esther is erotic and fascinating to read. Since Esther is a palace prisoner with few contacts with the outside world, Kanner is limited, and sadly so, from providing readers with more detailed descriptions of the heinous plot and impending massacre of the Jews.
As a portrait of a strong, independent woman, "Esther" is inspiring. Even in her teens Esther is aware that "my legacy was mine to make. I would take away the power of time to bury me." She wanted "to be bigger than only my time upon the earth."
"Esther" isn't perfect, but it deftly brings to life a brave and selfless woman who was willing to risk her life to save others.
Memmott also reviews books for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.