by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated by Patricia Felisa Barbeito
reviewed by Jennifer Kurdyla
Who do you talk to when you pray? Walk by anyone engaged in prayer, silent or aloud, and you might think that they are speaking to themselves. Now, this isn’t to say that we are all gods and goddesses, or that God doesn’t exist (that’s a debate for another time and place)—but simply a reminder that the question of God’s identity is complex. In her new book, God’s Wife, Greek novelist Amanda Micholopoulou inserts yet another figure into the mix, one whose voice couldn’t be more timely: his wife.
A prolific master of auto-fiction, Michalopoulou has produced works where the lines between the imagined and reality are blurred for the entirety of her writing career. She’s explored coming-of-age and middle age with historical depth, poignant characterization, and enigmatic narrative technique in her seven acclaimed novels and short story collections, which have been translated into twenty different languages. Working this time with a new translator, Patricia Felisa Barbeito, this novel is her third to be translated into English, and while it has a bit of a spunkier narrative voice than the other two (a novel and story collection), the consistency of intellectual curiosity in all three is a testament to Michalopoulou’s impressive artistic project. Part Elena Ferrante and part Nabokov, she is unafraid to push the edges of her craft. It’s extremely fitting, then, for her to take her imaginative talents beyond the mortal realm in this novella, told from the point of view of a human woman who takes the ultimate vow of loyalty.
God’s wife is not who you’d expect, however. This is no “Leda and the Swan” scenario, where a frail and overwhelmed woman is taken over by the powerful presence of the Almighty. Although she goes unnamed in the narrative, God’s wife is like someone you might have met at your neighborhood café, or a coworker at your office. She got married very young and was swept away to her husband’s heavenly kingdom, but she still has a past—one she’s not afraid to remind her husband of, especially as she mines her own memory for justifications of her own existence, separate from that of being God’s chosen companion. She also has a mind, which blossoms forth into exuberance on the pages of the book she’s writing—the book we are reading. For God’s Wife is a manifesto of sorts, broken into three parts titled after Dante’s succession of Inferno-Purgatorio-Paradiso, a structure that suggests a liberation of self that she writes into existence.
Much of our narrator’s tale recounts the day-to-day intimacies of her unlikely marriage—their meals (though God cannot eat, so he mostly watches), bedtime rituals, petty arguments and playful banter, and even supernatural sexual escapades with creatures in the forest who satisfy her in a way even God never could. We learn with refreshing but familiar detail about how God created the world—“It all began when a yellow flare tore through the benighted chaos”—and the slipups he had in the process—when He retreated to a cave to rest that seventh day, he awoke “to a terrifying world. Bloated corpses of His own making bobbed on cataclysmic floods. The sun, His brightest achievement, had turned into a turgid crimson giant.” Through the pen of God’s wife, we get an unadulterated version of how we, herself included, got to where we are. Reading this description of the world gone awry is haunting in our present day, when some may say God, or whomever is up there, seems to have retreated into a cave and left us to our own inherently destructive means.
Where redemption lies for her, and for us, is in the power of the pen. In writing this book, whose reader she both doubts and places an extreme faith in, God’s wife asserts the validity of her own point of view, positing that its record is as worthwhile as God’s universe of creation. “I don’t know whether I am doing this for me or for you,” she writes. “Who cares? We both have something to gain: you, the Truth, and I, Revelation.”
Even God gets in on the project, to a degree. Her biggest accomplishment, if you can call it that, is convincing God to go down to Earth with her for a while—He dressed as a bearded, suited, captivating older man (the beard being the only cliché of God in the book, besides the capitalized pronoun, both interesting conventions on Michalopoulou’s part), and she as her human self. On Earth, they fall in love—with reading. First, God becomes obsessed with the stories his children crafted, gobbling up the works of Tolstoy and Austen and Goethe and Woolf. Their hotel room on Earth becomes a kind of literary lair, and eventually He allows His wife to indulge in reading, too. Reading brings her answers to the big-picture questions God had refused to answer while they were in heaven. The pieces of human experience she’d been denied by marrying so young and living in an otherworldly place—what joy, suffering, friendship, betrayal, all those deliciously complex human experiences, feel like—are drawn out and explained in the stories she reads. It may be a vicarious way of living, but for God’s wife, reading gives her access to many more lives than she ever could have had on her own, even while living in Heaven.
From this point of view, the novella’s sense of meaning and purpose turns inward on itself. While we are lured into a tale about an enormity and importance beyond our human existence, the happy ending is right here at home—the Kansas that surpasses Dorothy’s Oz. Michalopoulou’s tale ultimately reminds us of the importance of each of our human, everyday voices, whether someone reads them or not. In closing the book, if you, dear reader, had any doubt about the worth of your story, it’s quashed—because today could be the day God and His wife pick it up, and find in it the kind of pleasure and inspiration that even the ultimate storyteller couldn’t have conceived.
Published on September 8, 2020