Sally Colin-James,

Fourth Estate (Harper Collins imprint) 

RRP. $32.99

As you read this book let your imagination take you back five hundred years to when the mad friar Savonarola ordered the destruction of art and sculpture in Florence saying it was the devil’s work.

Now travel back further to before the birth of Jesus, as Elisheva, mother of John the Baptist escapes to the hills to save her child from the Roman soldiers who have been ordered by Herod to kill all male children. 

The characters are so compelling and the research meticulous, it is easy to travel two thousand years on the wings of the author’s vivid imagination, for this book is based on real people and some historical events, leaving fiction and our imagination to fill in their day-to-day lives. 

As Einstein points out, “For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the whole world.”

The plot sets out to celebrate the power and creative spirit of the female heart through the life of three women from different eras. They are joined by what the author calls the “illumined thread” of a special painting which depicts two historical characters, the mother of John the Baptish and her cousin Mary, mother of Jesus.

It was inspired by the life size masterpiece by Renaissance artist Mariotto Albertinelli, who lived in Florence during the great flourishing of art in the 16th century. 

His painting called La Visitazione which now hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, depicts the figures of Elisheva who lived in ancient Judea in 38 BCE in the valley of Beit HaKarem and her young cousin Maryam, the Aramaic names for St Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary.  

 Mariotto is friends with a number of fellow artists including Raffaello, Fra Bartolomeo and the great sculptor Michael Michaelangelo who carved the famous marble statue of David. 

However, Mariotto’s hard drinking, whoring and fighting cuts short his life and he leaves his young wife Antonia with a mountain of debt so she spends the rest her life trying to repay it. 

 On Mariotto’s death, Antonia tries to find the elusive white paint that artists like her husband insist is the colour they need as a base for the true skin colour of their subjects, which for centuries has eluded artists.  

Meanwhile Elisheva, a skilled glass blower strives to fall pregnant to her husband Zakhariya year after year, until in middle age she gives birth to Yohanan who will become John the Baptist. 

Maryam’s child is born several months after and both women are said to have had prophetic dreams that their sons will both die horrible deaths while still young.

It is this knowledge that Mariotto Albertinelli has chosen to paint on the faces of the women who look at each other with love and sadness. As a result, Antonia falls under the spell of the painting, while Dr Elizabeth Reed, a world renowned restorer of ancient cloth who lives in Adelaide and sufferers from anxiety attacks, is also uplifted and inspired by the painting. 

Dr Reed has lost her adult son in an accident and has just managed to muster the courage to escape an abusive husband and a clinging mother, both of whom play on her sensitivities using emotional blackmail. She has been offered a six -month residency in Israel to help restore garments found in a cave near the Dead Sea, estimated to be two thousand years old.

Thanks to the friendship and support of her boss at the Art gallery where she works, Dr Reid struggles to get her life back on track and it is her intense devotion to her work and this sudden offer to leave Adelaide which will save her, if only she will take it. 

This is an emotional, well written book about the different paths these three women take according to the customs of their time. It is about female friendship, ambition and resilience, even though each woman can sense that the outcome will, or has already, resulted in loss. 

Sally Collin-James purposely sets out to celebrate female power and creativity as we learn how each character strives for the apparent unattainable. Her timing with this story is pertinent as the “me too” movement continues to inspire and slowly change all areas of female life.

Sherry Stumm

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