Reviews of The Wayward Moon
Amblin' through the medieval Fertile Crescent – the hard way: Janice Weizman's The Wayward Moon
by Ze'ev Maghen
I came upon the Wayward Moon in a distinctly unliterary way: I was riding in a friend's car, we got a flat tire, and next to the jack that I ferreted out of the trunk lay a volume with a fetching cover. While my friend did the honors and changed the tire, I opened up to the first page and was immediately sucked in. By the time we got back into the car I was in another world entirely, and dead to conversation.
It's pretty ambitious to write a novel against the backdrop of the medieval Middle East, especially one that doesn't concern itself with the typical Arabian Nights-type harem intrigues. At the university, the medieval period is considered the hardest to teach, the most challenging to make interesting for students. Weizman has stepped up to meet that challenge, in a new and gripping novel.
The author brings her readership along on the simultaneous internal and external journey of a young Jewish girl in tenth century Iraq who is wrenched from her stable life on page one and thereafter thrust into many varied and unexpected lives – of the sort that Jewish mothers would not condone. Among other identities she is led to assume, she becomes a Muslim slave girl, a Christian monk, and an assistant at a bawdy inn. The author employs what is clearly an impressive storehouse of knowledge about the period and its cultures and religions – she employs, inter alia, the Church Fathers, the Talmud, Islamic Law, Sufism, Aristotle and Sophocles as intellectual backdrops – in order to vivify the perceptions and polemics of the time in a manner rarely matched in this genre. Along the way we learn much about what the world and society was like back then in this all important region, as if we had had the benefit of a time machine.
Weizmann is not only a highly talented writer whose prose carries the reader along as if on an intermittently calm and tumultuous river; she is also a genuine thinker and a profound feeler, which makes the book not just a page turner (I read it over three days despite being surrounded 24/7 by four kids on summer vacation constantly demanding my attention) but an insightful page turner. This is not to say that the book foregrounds intellectual/philosophical or emotional/psychological issues in a concerted effort to make the reader consider or wrestle with them; the effect of Weizman's storytelling is subtler than that, and perhaps for that reason stronger. It pulls the reader into a place and time far from his or her own, and into a certain atmosphere or a feeling – I don't quite know how to describe it (which is part of its strength) – that hovers over one even after the book has been temporarily or finally laid aside.
To me it was inspirational: any book that can get a fifty three year old, bourgeois father of four into a Jack Kerouac state of mind packs some serious power. The Wayward Moon makes you think and it makes you feel; but more than anything it makes you want to move.
Ze'ev Maghen is professor of Arabic Literature and Islamic History at Bar-Ilan University and Shalem College. His most recent book is John Lennon and the Jews (Toby Press, 2015).
“The Wayward Moon is a magnificent piece of historical fiction and a startlingly beautiful portrayal of a strong woman in an era when women were expected to be only a man’s wife and mother to his children.”
"In her debut novel, Toronto-born Weizman, who now lives in Israel and is founder and editor of the Ilanot Review, explores Islamic history through crises confronted by women. The action in the story—and there’s lots of it— takes place in the ninth century, mostly in what is now Iraq. The first-person narrator, 17-year-old Rahel Bat Yair, is the daughter of a Jewish physician in Sura, south of Baghdad. Her mother died giving birth to Rahel, and her father raised and educated her. He arranges her marriage and accepts a position as advisor to the governor; the latter action enrages an anti-Semitic member of the governor’s entourage, leading to a bloody confrontation in which the doctor is killed and Rahel slays the murderer. She flees and her subsequent exciting adventures, from a stint in a monastery to an ill-fated love affair, occupy the rest of the book. She eventually finds her way back to the Jewish community in the Galilee area and writes her story. This melodrama holds the reader’s interest as the strong-willed Rahel weathers this series of disasters.”
"One of the many virtues of The Wayward Moon is that it avoids both of the fashionable extremes with regard to Jewish-Muslim relations... Instead, Weizman shows the nuances and conflicts that existed within Islam, and quite reasonably suggests that individual Muslims held different views of how they should relate to their Christian and Jewish neighbors. A generous humanism pervades the novel, as Weizman suggests that Jews, Muslims and Christians of good faith can find common ground."
"Set in the year 854, in a town called Sura (in modern day Iraq), Rahel, a 17-year-old Jewish girl, is handed an incredible burden. Instead of preparing to meet her fiancé for the first time, she will have to flee, leaving behind her intended, her home, possessions, and her identity. An enemy of her father has burst into her house and killed her father. Rahel has had to kill him in self-defense. At that time and in that area of the world, Rahel’s choices and rights are limited. Rahel encounters wealthy merchants, Islamic theologians, Christian monks, illicit lovers, and shrewd innkeepers. She must outplay them all. In the end, Rahel will have to decide where she will be happy and safe. Readers will be amazed to learn that this is Weizman’s debut novel as it is written so expertly. The imagery is particularly impressive. The setting comes colorfully alive in exquisite detail. The story is heart-rending and the heroine inspiring. Readers will cherish this book. It is recommended for Jewish libraries."