Before I finally met Wanda, I had been aware of her creator (Lynn Joffe) making noises from the side lines. I’d heard the piercing questions at author events, seen her around and about (online) and somehow – unwittingly – got to even read a short sample of what must have been an early Wanda on a writer’s forum somewhere. I remember thinking, flippit this woman has a story, and a turn of phrase.
But nothing, not the cover, not the shout outs by Stephen Fry, nor the reviews I’ve already read, could have prepared me for story of The Gospel According to Wanda B. Lazarus.
And I’m pretty daunted even writing this review, Wandering whether I can do her justice. It’s nothing like I’ve ever read.
I’m going to give it a bash.
The premise of this extraordinarily clever, hilarious, daring, joyful, raunchy (did I say raunchy?) musically feminist ‘frisson’ of a story is that of the immortal Wanda. It’s a retelling of the old myths and historical legends in the most unusual way imaginable through a mix of up Yiddish language and upturned clichés. Wanda delves deep into Jewish history and Greek mythology, starting in Judea in 33 CE and winds her way through to Norway in 2020CE. Her desires? To recast the myth of the Wandering Jew rather as an outspoken Jewess, Wanda (the original Mariam) who through her love of music and determination to have women’s voices heard, tells her own tale in a language that is entirely and uniquely her own. Her quest? To become the Tenth Muse. And in between it all, engage in much pleasuring of her ‘pomegranate pip’ otherwise identified as a ‘bliss button, quimberry, or man in the boat’.
Starting at the very first page, I knew I was in for a ride. Her tone, wit and funny use of sayings had me re-reading sentences and saying the Yiddish words out aloud, smiling to myself at their sounds.
‘If we hadn’t been following Hadassah’s pomegranate all over the world, we’d never have wound up in Bethany. Lazzie would still be alive. And I’d be mortal. But that’s not how the hamantaschen crumbled.’
Through a series of eleven chapters, Wanda’s immortality allows her to return to several different experiences in a variety of Pleromas – places of magic realism.
I think an audio book for this story is mandatory. But only by the author who would undoubtedly through intonation and pronunciation of the Yiddishisms elevate the hilarity of this novel read.
In Sultana of Saz, Constantinople, 1555 CE, she meets and describes Solly the Sultan:
‘Sol was a prem, but if you didn’t know how to sing it just right while nibbling the Big Boy, you could run him raw ten ways of Ramadan and relief would evade him. F was his Scarlet Letter: F for fellatio, his secret sin. In the key of F major. It took both saz and suck to give Sol his due. Unless they grasped this solid insight, the freshest female flesh would fail to rouse his sceptre. If you’ve ever held a Sultan by the short and curlies, you’ll know the feeling. Emperors, presidents, rabbis, high priests- they’re all seduced by the flattery of an intelligent woman playing with them at her own power game. Tit for turban so to speak.’
Wanda provides a proper antithesis of our historical and mythical understanding of sexism and anti-semitism told in the most unique way, reminding the reader that…
…’sometimes a woman must take responsibility for her (your) own pleasure.
But the way she tells it? Just Wandaful.
After straddling the neck of a musical instrument, she tells Solly the Sultan,
‘My bobba could bring herself to ecstasy just by glancing at my zaida. Through her veil. Across a crowded temple. And when they danced, well, the very walls wailed.’
When Sol asked how? She replies,
‘He found her B- spot. B for Bat Sheva. For that was her name. Her bobbaness, her beauty spot, her key of B, her bottom line…’
Oy. Wanda’s chutzpah is unrelenting. She’s wild, quick and so clever. The stories she weaves are centred on the themes of sexism and women’s suppressed voices. But she does much more than that.
I dare you to read this debut novel. You may think you need a Yiddish dictionary to understand the terminology, but it doesn’t even matter. Take a breather. Wanda’s wit and context will pull you through.
In my view, she does indeed become heroine of her own story.
Here’s part 2 of how she conducted her research and how she created this colourful character