The Language of Paradise
- By Barbara Klein Moss
- W.W. Norton & Company
- 416 pp.
- Reviewed by Dorothy Reno
- April 6, 2015
Faith and fanaticism mingle in this unique, challenging tale.
In this ambitious debut novel, The Language of Paradise, Barbara Klein Moss transports readers to a mid-19th-century New England town for an epic tale about love, faith, and the dark arts.
Gideon Birdsall is a philology student with a special gift for Hebrew, though he isn’t Jewish. With the help of his teacher, Reverend Professor Hedge, Gideon is working to create a dictionary to facilitate a deeper interpretation of the Old Testament. Hedge invites Gideon to see him preach at the local parish, and a chance encounter with Hedge’s adopted daughter, Sophy, sparks a clear attraction.
Sophy is the opposite of Gideon. While he is studious, rigid, and prone to absolutes, she is dreamy and artistic. At the moment they meet, Sophy is dancing outside in a state of reverie, communing with nature and with a force that she likes to think of as the spirit of her dead birth mother.
The two court and marry, but not before tragedy strikes the Hedges. The reverend sustains serious injuries in a carriage accident and dies shortly before Sophy and Gideon’s wedding.
Gideon takes his deceased father-in-law’s place in the pulpit, but his academic leanings make for stilted preaching. The church’s elders soon fire him.
Enter Leander Solloway, the town’s schoolmaster and a mysterious outsider. He’s learned and charming, but possesses something otherworldly. Sophy (a fellow pagan soul) doesn’t like Leander, but Gideon is seduced by his strange religious interpretations. Soon enough, the two men make a plan: to re-create the Garden of Eden and forge Sophy and Gideon’s first child into the new Adam.
There’s an even stranger twist. Both Leander and Gideon are driven to discover man’s first and natural language — the language spoken by Adam when he named the flora and fauna in the Garden. To achieve this, Leander and Gideon decide the child must not hear any language at all until he can speak of his own accord in the most ancient tongue.
By the time her son, Aleph, is 9 months old, Sophy begins to feel like a prisoner in the silent glass enclosure of their fabricated Eden. She grows weary of her husband’s sheepish fervor and Leander’s slick machinations. She longs to escape and rejoin her brothers at the Hedge household, but breaking away could result in a catastrophe of biblical proportions.
Literary historical fiction is the first cousin of Great Classic Novels. To write such a book requires more than imagination and skilled penmanship: it also takes a scholarly intellect, which Klein Moss aptly displays throughout the book.
Her grasp of Scripture, Hebrew, Latin, and the deep, quiet fanaticism of the Calvinists is convincing and, frankly, impressive. The amount of research she must have done to write this book is matched by the effort it takes to read it. The Language of Paradise is not a beach read, but a novel to savor and interpret. It’s a book one could read dozens of times, gleaning new nuances and lessons at each turn, much like the Book of Genesis it fashions itself after.
Yet, at over 400 pages and told in seven parts, the novel is over-long. Klein Moss could have cut the entire beginning in order to place the reader directly into the deliciously foreboding murk of Sophy’s imprisonment, which instead comes much later in the story.
As with all great literature, the themes here have universal appeal: the quest for personal paradise (happiness, completeness) and how this can drive people mad; the projection of qualities onto others; and the disillusionment that can result therein.
But there is levity and triumph here, too, as Sophy transcends her experiences and grows into a wise, powerful woman.
The Language of Paradise is a challenging trek, and only serious readers — those with a taste for history and an appreciation for the language of the soul — need apply.
Dorothy Reno is a DC-based writer who’s been published by Red Tuque Books and is working on a collection of stories called The One that Got Away.