A woman comes for confession, her first in 30 years. Anxiously she fingers a hand-stitched notebook filled with her own version of Bible stories, driven by her reimaginings of biblical characters. We never learn exactly why she has written these fragments, although themes emerge—uneasy family relationships, physical disabilities, mental illness. Perhaps the woman’s own story shapes them. The stories are told slant, very slant, so the reader feels their gravity. But they truly engage the scriptures. They are luminous, numinous.
Her name is Bernadette. Like the visionary saint who saw the biblical Mary in Lourdes, France, in 1858, this Bernadette too is something of a cipher as she provides a link to the sacred. She does needlework like her namesake, shares the same infirmities, and wonders if she’s going mad. She herself may be a saint—barely.
Mary Rakow’s novel is just barely a novel. But in 62 brief chapters she manages to make familiar characters strange and fresh. They migrate from the Old Testament to the New, from the Bible to contemporary life, with the suggestion that they themselves may be authors. The Old Testament, for example, begins with “Adam the Maker” rather than God, although God appears soon enough. Adam creates “draft after draft after draft,” resulting in animals, when what he really wants is to comprehend himself.