A woman sits in prayerful meditation, waiting to offer her first confession in more than thirty years. She holds a small book on her lap, one that she’s made, and tells herself again the Bible stories it contains, the ones she has written anew, for herself, each story told aslant, from Jonah to Jesus, Moses to Mary Magdalen. Woven together and stitched by hand, they provide a new version, virtually a new translation, of the heart of this ancient and sacred text. Rakow’s Bernadette traces, through each brief and familiar story, a line where belief and disbelief touch, the line that has been her home, ragged and neglected, that hidden seam.The result is an amazing book of extraordinary beauty, so human and humorous, and yet so holy it becomes a work of poetry, a canticle, a song of lament and praise. In the private terrain of silence and devotion, shared with us by a writer of power and grace, Rakow offers, through Bernadette, her own lectio divina for the modern world. No reader will forget this book or be able to read the Bible itself without a new perspective on this text that remains, arguably, Western civilization’s greatest literary achievement.
This Is Why I Came
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Mary Rakow is the recipient of two Lannan Foundation Residencies and a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship. "The Memory Room" was shortlisted for the Stanford University Libraries International Saroyan Prize in Literature, a PEN USA/West Finalist in Fiction and was listed among the Best Books of the West by "The Los Angeles Times." She comes to fiction from theology (Masters, Harvard Divinity School, Ph.D., Boston College) and lives in San Francisco where she is a freelance editor.
--Samantha Dunn, author of Failing Paris and Not By Accident "Who would dare re-imagine the stories of the Bible? Mary Rakow, that's who. Author of a brilliant debut novel, The Memory Room, a Harvard Divinity School graduate gifted with the ear of a poet, Rakow's long awaited second novel, This is Why I Came is unusual, effortlessly lyrical and philosophically direct. The product of someone, rare in our time, who seems possessed of a biblical imagination. That the novel is controversial and culturally timely is clear, entering the current belief/disbelief debate in an intimate and original way. Yet the novel gifts us with far more than that. It is a ticket into a dream where the opaque feels transparent again, the shallow, profound and the presumed irrelevance of biblical characters, including God himself, is explored. In place of this rumor of our shared smallness, the transcendent quality of the world, of the ordinary, feels not only possible but logical, natural and true. As I read the last page, I was caught up in a trance where new meanings and understanding found a place to take flight."--David Francis, author of The Great Inland Sea, Stray Dog Winter and Wedding Bush Road "We think we know the Bible. We think we know these old stories like we know our bodies. But Rakow explores the silences in these texts imagining realities yet undreamt. The startling result is her long-awaited second novel, This is Why I Came. Boldly and reverently she collapses time in her treatment of these biblical figures, grows forms and lifts the framework so that word becomes breath. She calls us to envision consciousness not enclosed in our heads or the spine of a book, even an ancient, and to many, a sacred book, but to celebrate it as alive, in constant interaction. This is what we look for in art. A vision that adds to the quality of our own consciousness, that breaks through reality as we know it. Our transfiguration.If all great art is praise, as she asserts, quoting Ruskin on her website, then This is Why I Came is praise of the most high. In the first chapter, she imagines Adam as the Maker, driven to despair because he cannot make the form he longs to see, the form that will tell him who he is. In this, Rakow succeeds where her Adam failed. Through her protagonist Bernadette, she has made a new form that tells us who we are. In her hands, words become cups of light and symbols are given their potential to reveal, again and anew, what it is to be human."--Julianne Ortale, Women on the Edge Praise for The Memory Room "Once you have read the last line and closed the cover, the world will not look quite the same. This is fiction as art, the page as canvas."
-Sam Dunn, author of Failing Paris and Not By Accident "In her suspenseful, poetic, mysterious and profound novel The Memory Room, Mary Rakow addresses the big questions-how do we live with our knowledge of evil? And then what do we do with this knowledge, and how can we reconcile it with an equally profound awareness of the depth of the world's beauty and the possibility of faith? Approaching these fundamental issues not as a philosopher but as an artist using a subtle poet's touch, she explores the great paradoxes of the human condition without simplification or denial. The Memory Room marks the rarest of occurrences--the debut of a literary master."
-Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and Paint It Black "Powerfully imagined and profoundly insightful."
-Kirkus Review "When I became aware that this book would be threading Paul Celan's words all throughout its own texture, I wondered if an American novel's contemporary language and concerns could sustain those of a tragic, brilliant Holocaust survivor. But I needn't have worried. Mary Rakow has seamlessly, subtly composed her own memory fugue, distant from Celan yet profoundly connected. It's at once intense and crystalline on every page."
-John Felstiner, author of Paul Celan, Poet, Survivor, Jew and Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan "Haunting and profound, The Memory Room refracts personal history and puts it back together as powerful art. Reading this utterly unique--and very surprising--novel, is like being awake 150 consecutive nights, watching, exquisite brushstroke by brushstroke, the painting of a mural depicting the navigation of a human soul through the transcendent severities of love, unspeakable loss, exhaustive and bold questioning of beauty and faith itself. Mary Rakow has written a daring, brilliant book."
-Howard Norman, author of The Museum Guard and The Haunting of L "It is the moral seriousness of Rakow's book, as much as the literary inventiveness, that elevates her work to the realm of literature."
-Jonathan Kirsch, "Art After Auschwitz" The Los Angeles Times. "With subtlety, restraint and an extraordinary eye for detail, Rakow has constructed a breathtaking debut that avoids the clichés of abuse narratives as it tests the boundaries of prose and poetry.... Drawing from the Psalms and the poems of Paul Celan, Rakow has written a novel that distills the mysteries of suffering, faith and salvation into a complex yet accessible whole. The horror of her tale is ultimately redressed by the sensitivity and skill with which it is told."
-Publishers Weekly, starred review