|Genre: Historical Fiction
Main characters: Samson, Delilah and Samson’s mother
Time and place: some centuries before Christ; “the Philistine city of Timnah, near the Mediterranean Sea” and “the Philistine City of Ekron”
First sentence: “I am not going to tell you my name.”
Verdict: Somewhere between three-and-a-half stars and four.
“I will tell you of the strongest man to ever walk the earth, and of what proved mightier than his strength. For the strength of a man cannot save anyone, not even himself.”
This is the story of Samson, betrayed by the one he loved. The story of Delilah, the betrayer. We all know how it ends — but aren’t you curious how it all began?
The reason I have requested this book from NetGalley (thank you NetGalley!) is that I was very curious to see whether (and how) the author will manage to make Delilah a sympathetic character. And I was very, very impressed to see that she almost, almost, pulled it off. Which is quite a feat, given the material she had to work with (whatever else she is/turns out to be, Delilah must be a temptress, betraying the man who loved her — there’s not much room to wiggle around that).
Reading this book I realized I know very little about present-day Israel. I imagine though that there may be people in the remote rural areas living even now as people did back then, millennia ago: raising cattle, gathering olives, catching fish, &c. It sounds like a peaceful existence, yet also a very tiring one, as there is always work to be done, from sun-up to sundown and for everyone in the family.
Centuries ago, Hebrews and Philistines coexisted; there were some skirmishes, now and then — the Hebrews seem to be somewhat aggressive towards their neighbours — but the feeling overall is of time moving slowly and peacefully onwards.
From a Philistine point of view:
To him, we were the spectacle, the evil Philistines who had not departed his sacred land. Long ago, the legends say, the Hebrews had a god they took with them out of Egypt. This god “gifted” them our land. All the Hebrews had to do, the god said, was kill us all first.
Although the main character is Samson, we never get to know him first hand, as we only see him through the eyes of the females around him. This lack of objectivity (every woman’s opinion of Samson permeates their narrative) makes it rather hard to figure him out, to properly characterize him. The first impression we get is that he has a good nature, laughs a lot, participates in games — all good things, and understandable, as he is still quite young. I liked that about him. And yet, as years passed, his strength ends up spoiling him: he’s always free to do what he wants, there are no limitations whatsoever, as no one can actually oppose him, so he never gets to mature, to actually grow up. “He had no restraint, no discipline. He lived like a very bad donkey, his reins loose and untended“. His temper too is somewhat out of control — he never hesitates to kill or destroy things whenever someone crosses him, and, while I get that this was the only way to fight back he knew, he kinda lost my sympathy because of that.
The thing that I thought ruined the characterization of Samson the most was the fact that the author had to stay true to the Biblical events. Don’t get me wrong, she does a great job with it, but there is no way to interpret Samson’s behaviour towards Delilah other than his being dumb as a brick. It’s funny in a way, that, after Samson’s first marriage and its destruction after his wife’s betraying his secret to other people, he does anything but run for the hills when Delilah wants to know a secret of his, and his most important secret at that. If we also consider her actions after finding out what would make his strength disappear (basically she goes and does exactly that, each and every time), Samson’s eventually telling her the truth doesn’t make an ounce of sense.
Moving on to the actual narrators, a very interesting one is Samson’s mother. She is my least favorite of them, as she is very set on her ways and there’s not much to her other than that. And yet she is one of the major influences in the book, and as such she cannot be ignored. Not a bad woman per se, and still in love with the husband she was married to almost since childhood, the mother (name unknown) is obsessed with her pride in her family, in her God, and in her son that was send to her to deliver her people. Little does she know she’s on a path to disappointment — her son is too obsessed with living the easy life his strength affords him to care for any deliverance in the near future.
Speaking of which, it is worth noting that, despite Samson not caring too much about anything religion-related (he often visits Philistine cities, he sins a lot with all the available Philistine women, he’s even been to one of Dagon’s temples once), God is often by his side, helping him in his hours of need (and the Old Testament God is as blood-thirsty in the book as the one in the Bible).
Back to the narrators, the first half of the book is co-narrated by Samson’s first wife, a young girl called Amara. While at first I wasn’t particularly fond of her part, as she seemed a bit too young for me to care about her worries and whatnot, after a while I ended up liking her. Part of a tight-knit family, albeit not a rich one, Amara has grown up as sheltered as one could have done in those times. She realizes that, now on the cusp of womanhood, she will probably be married soon, but she never seriously considers it until her father agrees to Samson’s offer. Unfortunately her lack of maturity will ultimately lead to disaster for many — and to think it all started as a joke :(
The part about Delilah’s childhood and young years was easily the most powerful one in the whole book. Even more than that actually: as I read about her desperately caring for her two ewes with the soft, white, fluffy wool that will enable her to earn enough money to win her father’s love I was so touched by her plight I felt I wanted to pluck her out of the pages and protect her. Her life continued to be difficult as she grew up, but, as she lost her childhood naivete, her problems seemed to me less acute. After a while, she was given enough money to get a house of her own somewhere, so she more or less stopped having any problems at all. To make matters worse, that’s when she met Samson, a guy she doesn’t seem very interested in at first, a guy whose secrets she agrees to sell for an immense, previously unheard of sum.
It is worth noting that there is a lot more to her decision than simply the money involved (although the sum itself is too mind-blowing to consider; Samson has paid, as a bride price for Amara, four pieces of silver, and everyone was amazed about how big the sum was; Delilah was promised more than a thousand times that for her betrayal). The temptation of having so much money is almost overwhelming:
Maybe his god even knew which I desired more: a life with Samson, or life through Samson’s death. A life of immense power. I had no thoughts for what I would do with it. Only the certainty that it might protect me from pain.
And yet Delilah chooses to resist it at first.
Thing is, there is a special “connection” between Delilah and secrets: she is convinced that all the bad things that have ever happened to her — and they were many — were due to her own ignorance, to her not knowing things. Which unfortunately means that, once she finds out there actually is a secret to Samson’s strength, she acts like a dog with a bone, not letting go until she gets what she wants. Which is why I said the author is very close to pulling off making Delilah a sympathetic character: her dilemmas are understandable, given her past; if only it weren’t for her acting downright bitchy and aggressive towards Samson at times (I can understand that too, of course, as stemming from her frustration of not being given what she wants, but I don’t have to like her for it, and I don’t), she would have truly been ‘as good as it can get’ in the given circumstances. Quite a feat, author. Chapeau.
The Philistines are polytheists; the god that’s mostly worshipped in this area is a fertility god they call Dagon. Alas, in a way it is amusing to note how the men ‘sacrifice’ themselves on Dagon’s altar (by sleeping with Dagon’s beautiful priestesses), and then go out of their way to proclaim their devotion :)
And yet, as much as I have appreciated the book otherwise, this is where I think it falls flat: although raised to worship Dagon and belonging to a superstitious time, none of the Philistine main characters find any problem with denying him at the first occasion. It’s like the author simply knows her God is the right one, and as such expects the other characters to realize that too, ignoring their background and upbringing and the rest.
I would have been interested in knowing more about either of Samson’s relationships. The first one, his marriage to Amara, didn’t last all that long, plus the way each of the young people felt about the other was obvious. The relationship between him and Delilah though… I still don’t know what to make of it. Sure, he was in love. And he felt that his being in love gave him the right to impose on her? Was it actually imposing or did she actually want him there? There are no clear signs to point one way or another, and to tell the truth I was somewhat disappointed there wasn’t a great, grandiose, fireworks-y love between them, it would have made things a lot more interesting :)
Thoughts on the title
I am not particularly fond of the title in conjunction to the book. My take on its meaning is that delilah was desired, so desired by samson that he ended up telling her his most important secret. However, this assumes the novel revolves around Delilah — the desired one — while my impression of it while reading was that it actually revolves around Samson.
Thoughts on the ending
Who knew that the ending of such a well-know story will end up being (slightly) surprising? I liked that.
What I liked most
The fact that I got to learn/think about the way the life was back then.
Also, I was amused by the practical joke Samson has played on the people of Gaza: wanting to punish them for trying to harm him, he wrenched the city gates off the hinges, took them up to the top of Mount Hebron and left them there. Those gates were so big that twenty horses had to drag each of them, on wheeled carts, to bring them to their place when their were first built; which means that it was somewhat of a hassle to get them off the mountain and back where they belonged :)
A favorite quote:
Context: Delilah was her parents’ only daughter, and considered by them nothing but a burden. So much so that they never even gave her anything to eat, so she had to make do with whatever was left (usually not much) after everyone went to bed. She never let that bring her down though.
When you only have a little, a little can be very good. Were I given a whole bowl of stew to eat, I told myself, I could not enjoy it. Everything tastes the same after the fourth bite. My way, the way of hunger, made the pleasure of each tiny taste almost unbearable. If I was not so hungry, food would not taste so good. In this way, I feel sorry for my family, who probably never tasted Mother’s cooking the way I do. Already, I have riches they knew nothing of. I know how to find treasures in the ashes of this life.
What I liked least
The “Samson turns out to be dumb as a brick” part, as mentioned above. Again, I now that it’s not the author’s fault, but I really really, try as I might, cannot begin to understand Samson’s train of thought regarding the matter.
Recommend it to?
Anyone interested in a new take on the story of Samson & Delilah.