Three strange, carefully wrapped infants appear on a Bethlehem rubbish heap – local girl Leah doesn’t like their looks, but her little sister Shoshana insists on bringing them home.
That night, in a stable across town, a woman goes into labour. Hers is a very special baby, announced by angels, its birthplace marked by a star. But her husband Yoseph looks into baby Emmanuel’s eyes and wonders, is this really the Son of the Lord, or just of a simple carpenter?
And then the visitors arrive.
Margo Lanagan’s Christmas novelette is a dance along the border between faith and fantast. Which side will you fall down on?
I read Lanagan’s novelette at almost exactly the wrong time of year; a hot, sunny July day. We Three Kids is a Christmas novelette – not in the sense of snow, cold, and atmosphere, but in the sense of literally being set in Bethlehem, in December, in 3BCE. So how well does Lanagan pull off her potentially-blasphemous, potentially-dully-religious topic?
The setting is pretty basic; We Three Kids doesn’t bother to do too much scene-setting of its first century Judean locale. There are elements – such as the snobbery and ideas of station – which are distinctly period, but so much is simply indistinguishable from the contemporary. There’s also surprisingly little Jewishness to the Jewish characters; the lack of involvement of rabbis is, really, quite stunning, for instance. But for all that it does seem vivid and alive, purely by virtue of being itself; Lanagan injects a thriving quality to the story even as the setting seems bare.
The characters are better. Leah and Yosef, especially, as our two viewpoint characters, are brilliantly written; We Three Kids captures beautifully well the feeling of being the eldest child but still a child, caught between childhood and adulthood, and also of new fatherhood, of that haze that it brings over one. Indeed, the differences in outlooks between the two characters is the biggest strength of the book, Leah’s cynicism as against Yosef’s faith and sense of wonder; but the rest of the cast are also very well done, including Mariam, nicknamed – what else? – Mary.
The plot is slight, though. Even for a novelette, this doesn’t seem to have much substance; We Three Kids has its one idea, and… draws it out, for forty pages. There are moments of absolutely brilliant humour, and times when it doesn’t seem to really make sense; there are occasions when it feels far too drawn out, and points when the narrative seems to elide things inexplicably.
We Three Kids is uneven, but thought-provoking and interesting, as a novelette; Lanagan makes sure she treads carefully the line between “story” and “reality”, and creates a readable and fun piece of biblical-era fiction.