Five cities, six husbands, 17 children

Dara Horn’s latest novel tells a captivating and complex story of a woman who can’t die and an ancient, priestly vow.

Scene from the  Arch of Titus (photo credit: JEAN-GUILLAUME MOITTE)
Scene from the Arch of Titus
Dara Horn is known for her incredibly complex story lines that blend past and present. Her characters always seem to be looking for answers to life’s deepest mysteries, flirting with notions of meaning and meaninglessness, which is something that clearly preoccupies Horn.
She begins her new novel, Eternal Life, with her protagonist, Rachel, declaring “Either everything matters, or everything is an outrageous waste of time. That’s what she would have said, if anyone asked her. But no one asks crazy old ladies for their opinions.”
Rachel has a serious problem. She can’t die. Two thousand years ago she made a spiritual vow to save the life of her firstborn son in Roman-occupied Jerusalem after becoming pregnant with Elazar’s child. Elazar was the esteemed son of the high priest Hanania. Rachel loved and loves Elazar in a way she has loved no other. She began this affair with him while in the process of marrying another man, whom her parents insisted upon, a man she would never grow to love.
When her child with Elazar becomes fatally ill, Elazar’s father, Hanania, offers them a chance to save the small boy. A sacred vow must be taken. But it came with a catch – immortality for both of them, which neither of them took seriously at the time. Horn explains the moment they finally realized the repercussions of what they had done.
“It was after Antioch, about 300 years in, that she discovered the horrible truths about her and Elazar. Three hundred years in – which included five cities, six husbands, 17 children, and five of her own deaths. The Romans, who had flayed her sixth and seventh sons alive for teaching Torah, had recently been replaced by people she thought of as the new Romans, people who used the same roads and tax systems and plumbing and only differed in their execution methods. They had protested outside her ink and parchment shop in Antioch, and finally torched the synagogue, along with her and many others, including her husband and children. She had woken up on the beach outside of Cicilia shortly before dawn, still wearing her old clothes, her face and skin as soft as a newborn baby’s. In a rare coincidence, Elazar, his face also new, was lying beside her. She had never been happier to see him.”
When we meet Rachel, she is living unhappily in our present time. She is recently widowed and wants to finally really die. She hopes her granddaughter Hannah, who is working on gene-alteration therapies to prolong human life, will be able to use her scientific expertise to reverse these therapies, allowing Rachel to end her life permanently. The problem is she hasn’t told Hannah anything about her past, and is uncertain how to approach her without appearing mad.
If all of this sounds a little too far out, it feels that way to the reader. Horn’s narrative voice falters frequently, and her characters remain buried beneath the intricacies of her story, suffocating them and giving them little room to grow. We get the sense that essential things remain unexamined.
YET THERE are idyllic moments that possess an imaginative beauty, particularly when Horn has Rachel remembering the genesis of her romance with Elazar 2,000 years ago. Rachel had been working as a scribe for her father, who would write out scrolls in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek or Latin and have her deliver them to the high priest at the Temple. Her father had taught Rachel how to read – a transgressive act at that time.
One day, it was Elazar, son of the high priest Hanania, who came forth to greet her. They were entranced with each other immediately. Rachel recalls how they made love standing up in their secret hiding place, the gentle way he touched her long braid. But what seduced her more than anything was his interest in her. Horn describes Rachel’s exhilaration: “No one had ever asked Rachel an intellectual question before; people only spoke to her to issue demands.”
Rachel and Elazar would often argue tenderly about Abraham, with her supporting her father’s belief that an earlier scribe had made a mistake and the story told about him misrepresented God’s teachings; and Elazar defending what was generally accepted by all as nothing less than the pure and unadulterated truth.
Rachel still remembers the son they shared. She taught this boy to read and think and question and wonder. He eventually became a tanna, someone who memorized conversations while sitting beside the religious scholars who debated the oral law that was given by God at Sinai. She had loved and nurtured all her children, but this boy was special to her. He was Elazar’s son.
This child went on to become a religious scholar who had disciples of his own. She was with him when he died. Her son’s faith was unwavering, but Rachel had doubts about God even then, uncertainties that had grown stronger over time.
Horn describes Rachel’s ambivalence: “She had once given all her heart and soul and might to that love, knowing there was nothing else. She still knew, when she walked through the woods and climbed up to sit on rocks older than herself, that there was nothing else. And she knew it, too, because of Elazar. But in the years since those times, that love had often seemed sadomasochistic: seductive, cruel and irresistible. In other words, like Elazar.”
When Horn leaves the past, or Rachel’s recollections of it, a spell is broken, and we are left with clunky contemporary dialogue between Rachel and her current family that feels forced. A certain gimmicky feeling takes hold.
Horn, who is now 40 and a mother of four, has lived what appears to be an exceptionally blessed life. She is the daughter of professional parents who took her and her three beloved siblings around the world on exotic trips that encouraged their imaginations and expanded their worldview. Dinnertime was often sacrosanct and often had her mother reading to them. She received a PhD from Harvard University in comparative literature, focusing her studies on Hebrew and Yiddish literature. Her earlier novels, such as A Guide for the Perplexed, The World to Come and All Other Nights have been well received by critics and readers.
Yet it is impossible not to detect an apathy that infects her writing that seems to come from an unexplored restlessness and admitted tendency to get bored easily. Her current novel radiates tragic overtones and little elation. Even her earliest writings from The Harvard Crimson seem devoid of the joy and sense of wonder that infect many smart young college girls.
Horn has claimed in interviews that she sees writing as “digging down into the soul,” but we sense her reluctance to do so. The result is characters that are often bloodless and without vitality. The most wondrous lives are still plagued by struggles with jealousy, loss, anger and disappointment. And battles with God. And searches for what is truly meaningful to us. But Horn seems to have trouble tapping into her deepest veins, the ones she needs to pierce in order to write truly compelling fiction.