Deborah Galiley’s novel Yohana is a beautiful historical drama that tells the timeless, incredible story of Jesus Christ but from a brand new perspective.
Yohana (also known as Joanna) is one of the women mentioned in the Gospel of Luke as having followed Jesus and supported his ministry, but little else about her is known. Galiley’s novel speculates what life was like for this obscure woman and tells the story of Jesus from her point of view. The tale is highly imaginative, bringing a new level of color and detail to the familiar Gospel story, while also paying scrupulous attention to historical detail.
Yohana, a Jewish heiress, lives with her husband Kuza in the palace of King Herod. Their life is prosperous and decadent, and yet Joanna feels empty… unfulfilled. She also lives in fear of the wasting disease in her hip which gives her constant pain and will eventually kill her.
One day she hears about a travelling rabbi who can heal any disease. Her desperation overcomes her skepticism and snobbery, and she travels to rural Galilee in search of a cure… but she finds so much more than she expected.
Yeshua of Natzeret is unlike anyone she has ever known or heard of. Not only does he heal even the most terrible ailments, but he restores life to people’s souls. Yohana finds herself captivated by this man who claims to be Israel’s savior, compelled to follow him and serve him wherever he goes.
With her husband’s blessing, she liquidates her inheritance and follows Yeshua’s ministry throughout Israel, covering expenses for him and his disciples, learning from his teaching, and finding herself changed from the inside out.
She has no idea the adventures–and the trials–that await her and Yeshua’s other followers. She only knows that for her there’s no going back.
Galiley’s novel is incredibly imaginative and innovative. The well-worn history of Jesus, his ministry, and his death on the cross were brought alive to me in a fresh way. Historical incidents and characters from the Biblical accounts were woven deftly into a narrative full of intrigue and passion. It was a delight to see his miracles and parables portrayed in such a natural manner… to hear Jesus talk to his followers amidst the crackling of a campfire and to see him embrace his friends when they were hurting.
Yohana had me turning page after page, eager for more, even though I know the original story better than I know any other. I knew exactly how the tale would end, but Galiley’s perfectly paced twists kept me hooked anyways.
Unfortunately, Galiley’s emotional pacing was less spectacular. Many times, Yohana or another character would have a radical shift in perspective that seemed to come out of left field. Not enough time was spent developing the characters’ backstories. My familiarity with and love for the story kept me emotionally engaged, but it did so in spite of an emotionally bereft narrative.
The emotional barrenness was especially notable in the final two chapters. The plot began to stumble a little at the climax, but the denouement, in which all the loose ends are supposed to be tied up and packaged with a pretty little bow, trailed limply off. Galiley simply didn’t devote enough narrative time or work to the emotional tension.
On a basic level, Galiley’s writing was somewhat rough and untrained. While she under-explained emotional moments, she over-explained technical and historical details. Very often, she told her characters’ frame of mind instead of showing their mental crisis. For a first person narrator, Yohana was far too all-knowing. Lastly, Galiley’s prose burst with adjectives and adverbs… a classic mark of undeveloped writing.
However, I’m convinced that all of Yohana’s shortcomings could have been remedied with a good layer of edits. And despite its flaws, the essence of her book is at once timeless and fresh. I found myself caught up in the story of Yeshua of Natzeret, moved in spirit, encouraged in heart, and refreshed in mind.
Sometimes, I can almost lose touch with the historical fact of who Jesus was… with the very ordinary reality of his extraordinary incarnation. Yohana, wife of Kuza, made Jesus real to me all over again, as she showed me where he walked, and how he talked, and how he touched the world with the very real hands of the Son of God.