Deep Vellum (2023)
Review by Daniel Rey
In a tradition of feminist retellings of the literary canon, works such as Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2005), Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls (2018) and Madeline Miller’s Circe (2019) tackled the Homeric epics from the point of view of characters whose role in the original texts is either limited or one-dimensional. In The Book of Eve, Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa goes further, taking arguably the most canonical book of all – the Book of Genesis – and subjecting it to a range of uncompromising feminist critiques.
Boullosa, who in previous work has offered satirical versions of stories from the New Testament, presents the reader with what is ostensibly an apocryphal manuscript purporting to contain Eve’s versions of stories such as The Creation, The Fall and The Flood. To this, Boullosa adds various metafictional ploys, such as loose fragments composed by Eve’s followers, and footnotes inserted in the twentieth century. All of this is framed by a denunciatory preface supposedly written by one of Catholicism’s most revered women, Saint Teresa of Ávila.
There is much to offend Saint Teresa. Eve copulates with angels and demons, and dreams that Adam is a necrophiliac hyena. Eve is created before Adam, and instead of being ensnared by the serpent, makes a rational choice to eat a tasty fruit that will enhance her knowledge. This Eve is self-aware and purposeful, emancipated yet innocent, and far superior to her male companion.
Eve describes how Adam fabricated his story; how his lies about her inability to resist temptation and thus her responsibility for their expulsion from Eden became canonical tales. She reveals other male calumnies against her, such as when Noah claimed it was he who built the ark.
‘Noah, whose food I served, decided to steal the story of my voyage to Enoch, announcing that he had been chosen by God to be the only survivor of a great flood, and that because he was the most righteous of men, the ark and all the others, etcetera, you know the story. First Adam stole the true story of our origins. Then Noah did it again. Story thieves. And there in his tale, in his imagination, he said that he brought his three sons and their wives aboard the ark with him. Could you call Noah a man of rectitude, one who believed his actions were right and just, if he left his daughters to drown in the flood?’
The Book of Eve is constantly outrageous and often brilliant. Behind the shocking episodes are an abundance of echoes and allusions to the Greek myths and to writers such as Freud, Bolaño, Cortázar and Donoso. It is a puckish (or titania-ish) thought experiment with postmodern sensibilities that makes women the default human beings. Yet, while this multivocal tale elevates Eve into a heroic figure, it also reminds us that Eve is not a paradigm of womanhood – she must share the narration with other women. Both Boullosa’s novel and the manuscript it contains make us consider who gets to tell stories, and whose stories we believe.