A couple of weeks ago, I came to the end of the fascinating book The 19th Wife, written by David Ebershoff. It was a big, sweeping read – part history lesson about Ann Eliza Young and the roots of Mormon polygamy or plural marriage; part contemporary murder mystery and part exposé of current First Latter Day Saints’ sects in the USA that still practise plural marriage to this day.
The novel contains two parallel stories: a modern-day murder mystery set in a mysterious sect that practises polygamy, and a historical saga based on the real life of Ann Eliza Young, the nineteenth wife of Brigham Young, Prophet and Leader of the Mormon Church in the late 1800s.
The contemporary story is a gritty one in which Jordan returns to visit his mother in jail after she has been accused of killing her husband. His mother is a plural wife (number 19) and Jordan, her gay son, was expelled from his community, a secretive sect still practising polygamy, six years previously.
The story of Ann Eliza Young charts the story of her parents’ plural marriage, the foundation of the Mormon Church and how she fought for her freedom from her powerful husband. She started the crusade that ended polygamy and ulitmately – so some say – saved the Mormon Church.
It is a compelling read as it raises questions about the effects of polygamy on all those involved: the loneliness and objectification of the women, the brutalization of the men and, above all, the abuse and neglect of the children of plural marriages. The book also examines faith, why we believe, and what happens when you lose your faith.
It is an entertaining, fascinating, dark and compelling novel. I found it engrossing – and yet chilling too in the way it examines the broader landscape of faith, and the spiritual crimes committed in the name of religious conviction.
A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading a book that is probably one of the most satisfying and complete reads I’ve read in a long while. The book explores the implications of whom we choose to love, and looks at how different our lives can turn out, depending on the paths we choose for ourselves. I am, of course, referring to Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World. (She shot to fame with her book We Need to Talk About Kevin.)
The story weaves together two parallel universes, showing us the two different paths that our heroine takes depending on the decision she makes in the first chapter. The protagonist, Irina, is in a stable yet stodgy relationship. At the end of the first chapter, she is very tempted to kiss another man. In one story, she resists and stays with her long-time partner. In the other alternative, she kisses the man and this leads to a wild, tempestuous relationship.
After the first chapter, we have two chapter twos, two chapter threes and so on, as Shriver explores Irina’s two possible futures. The two men are polar opposites. Lawrence is stable, stuffy and a little staid while Ramsey is a famous snooker player who is jealous and unstable. Neither of them is perfect and Shriver manages to paint two complex portraits of these men and of Irina’s possible lives.
As Irina herself says, “The idea is you don’t have only one destiny . . . as if everything hinges on one decision. But whatever direction you go there are going to be upsides and downsides.”
The other underlying theme in the book is, believe it or not, snooker. Who knew that there was so much passion underneath the cool exteriors of those suited snooker players?
As you can see, I have already launched myself into my next book: The 19th Wife. It’s a fascinating look at plural marriage (polygamy) in the US, both in the past and present.
Have you ever wondered what your life would have been like if you had made a different decision somewhere in your past?