The second standalone entry in Martin’s Women Unveiled series declares its boldness of vision from the first line: “I should have assumed with parents known to the world as Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ, I would be different.” In the vividly realized historical novel that follows, playwright/author Martin continues the striking storytelling of Dancing in the Labyrinth, exploring stories of women in history and myth pushing against the boundaries of patriarchal societies. This time, the setting is both Jerusalem, in the years of narrator Sara’s birth, and also 13th century Montségur as the French Royal Forces persecute the Cathars, a Christian sect deemed heretical by the pope. Sara may be “a swaddled babe in a hammock” in 34 AD, but her “memories are future moments yet to be lived,” she tells us. Born to visions, she often awakens inside others, throughout time. Eventually, she awakens in a young Cathar, Sarah-Marie. In both of the novel’s major time-settings, Sara and her loved ones face religious persecution. In rich, clear, and sometimes playful prose—Sara uses the word “ginormous”—Martin offers a heady meditation on belief and oppression, the strength it takes to persevere, and what Sara calls “the conspiracy of time” as the narratives pass through continents and millennia. Crucial themes center the origins of Christianity in older systems of belief and efforts throughout history to erase those origins. One gripping passage finds Sara awakened inside a young man during the canonization of the New Testament, privy to discussion about what other books were eliminated and why. While much of the novel is exploratory, with Sara feeling her way through stories and epochs and tribulations, the central thread of Sarah-Marie and her prescribed fate—“death by burning” in a massacre—generates welcome suspense, as Sara tries to find a way to save her. Perhaps what’s most remarkable about this layered, ambitious, poetic novel is its clarity and coherence, as Martin finds dramatic means to explore religious and historical complexities and spiritual connections between women through the ages. The Bringer of Happiness is occasionally challenging but more often illuminating.
Takeaway: This time-crossed novel examines women, faith, persecution, and the establishment of religious canon.
Great for fans of: Charmaine Craig’s The Good Men, Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels.