November’s book review! Tosca Lee’s Havah: A Poetic, Prehistoric Immigrant Narrative

“I do not tell him that I wait for the birdsong to seem somehow more heavenly and ethereal at once, as though from a throat which never devoured something so base as a worm. For the air to smell of apricot and peach, for the sound of a river fed by the waters of the abyss. I start at the stir of every breeze, at the whisper of the stunted grass on the plain.”

As she nears the site of the former Garden of Eden, in one last attempt to re-enter her old home, Tosca Lee’s main character Havah (Eve) finds herself filled with poetic nostalgia. This evocative, lush novelization of the story of Adam, Eve, and their children traces the first couple’s passionate marriage from their awakening in the garden through their exile, their work to survive in an often harsh new world, and the several generations of their family.

The characterization of Havah reminded me of Ashima in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake – after immigrating to the United States to accompany her husband, who has landed a Boston professorship, she exhibits quiet strength and slowly adjusts to their new home while never losing sight of her memories of eastern India. Havah is also a kind of early immigrant, forced to continually travel south with her growing family in search of water, food, and fertile soil. She is also left at home while Adam embarks upon dangerous explorations, defending their caves and reed brick houses against lions and wolves.

One of the first scenes in the movie version of the Namesake shows a loving, determined, but bewildered Ashima shaking red curry powder into her bland oatmeal before washing her husband’s shirts. In a similar way, Havah retains an emotional and spiritual connection to life in the garden valley of Eden to an even greater extent than her husband, who lived there with her before the birth of their children.

Busy with building their first permanent home south of Eden, Adam comes home exhausted one night and asks Eve whether their new lives are truly so bad compared to what they have left. He and most of the children rush to make their ways in the new world and scarcely mention the past, while Havah holds on in her mind to the beauty, the innocence, and the easy communion with nature and her husband she enjoyed in the old days. Through this characterization of the couple, and through the children with whom they eventually develop closer affinities (Havah with the sensitive, complex, burdened, protective and wild Kayin/Cain and Adam with the easygoing, social, fun-loving Hevel/Abel), Tosca Lee illustrates different approaches to resolving the dilemma faced by many immigrants: how to successfully adapt without losing one’s sense of oneself.

There are dangers in both remembering and forgetting: Havah effectively places a huge burden on Kayin to rescue his family by restoring a past he’s never seen, contributing to family tensions which end in murder, and Adam becomes detached, rootless, gone most of the time, emotionally disconnected from his wife and his own identity. Near the end, the couple talks during their final journey back to Eden, and the elderly Adam admits he’s always admired his wife’s poetic descriptions of the past and her focus on ideas beyond their everyday life. She in turn embraces Adam and reassures him that despite the new life’s imperfections they have both done their best to build a life and create a family in the new world. At last they grow into becoming the way they have always described each other: two bodies joined as one, one flesh, making peace with the past and present.

Tosca Lee resists the temptation to romanticize or melodramatize prehistoric life throughout her book. Food rots in Havah, animals eat one another and leave carcasses in the fields, and children must be toilet-trained so they will use the sanitary midden hole rather than the back of the family home. Adam, Havah, and the children, and eventually the children’s spouses and grandchildren, must all labor daily at weaving, farming, sheep-herding, sewing, etc to ensure the family’s survival. The descriptions of everyday work and everyday efforts to manage life in the new settlements ground the book firmly in reality as well as illustrating the dignity, strength, and equality of these men and women.

Lee found much of her inspiration for this novel through exploring older Hebrew writings on the creation story, and has explained how modern readers lose much of the lyricism, humor, poetry, and layers of meaning in the texts when we only access them in translation. And this novel certainly fleshes out and humanizes each of the major characters as a result of her research and imagination, while sprinkling the minor ones with distinctive traits to individualize them (Sufa’s flirtatiousness, Renana’s birthsongs, Lahat’s sewer engineering and early pottery accident.)

Eve is somewhat of an athletic tomboy, taking off to run across the fields and reveling in her outdoor adventures, and has a dry, earthy sense of humor, teasing her husband and children at opportune moments. The non-transliterated Hebrew names for the characters cause readers to take a step back from the usual associations one would bring to a story about someone named Cain or Eve, and to view them with fresh eyes. The natural setting is also described in extensive detail, using original language and varied sentence structure to bring a subtle poetic sensibility to even the most mundane events.

The author is personally Christian, yet this is not formula “Christian Fiction” and avoids providing easy, spiritual answers to the inevitable questions the characters face. We never know, for example, why Hevel’s sacrificial lamb catches fire almost immediately on the altar and Kayin’s (more humane!) vegetables simply smolder, humiliating him before the entire family. The event simply happens with no explanation, and the characters then respond as they choose. This reflects much of the human experience – we only understand so much, and then must go on to live as best as we can.

As a journalism student, our curriculum includes descriptions of early models of communication and persuasion. One of the most prominent early ideas was the ‘looking-glass self,’ the concept of learning about oneself and developing a self-concept from watching others and eventually the mass media. The novel provides an interesting exploration of how self-development might occur in the absence of a metaphorical ‘looking-glass’ – where the first family learns about life from observing the natural world around them. Adam and Havah peer into ponds and lakes and feel their own features for glimpses of themselves, yet most of their learning comes from everyday reality. They conceptualize and prepare for old age by watching aging animals, and create a moral code based on their own experiences and past feelings of betrayal, and from what they observe is necessary for survival. Life is difficult and they must eat, so everyone must work hard. Everyone’s cooperation is necessary – so one must be trustworthy and loyal. The world is dangerous – so having the courage to protect the settlement is a worthy ideal. There are many mysteries in everyday life – so cultivating an attitude of wonder and reverence is crucial.

A few times I became confused with the large assortment of Adam and Havah’s descendants and it was difficult to keep all of the names straight. Also, Havah’s character change from being a lovely pacifist horrified at the mere thought of wearing fur to a scrappy hardworking survivalist proud of her hunter son seemed a bit abrupt, occurring  between two sections of the novel.

Overall, though, I would definitely recommend Havah to anyone who enjoys family sagas, immigrant narratives, survival stories, cultural anthropology – or simply a powerful, thought-provoking read. This is Tosca Lee’s second novel, and available online in paperback from its website:

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