Naomi Stephens’ debut novel, “Shadow Among Sheaves”, is every bit as poetic and brooding as its title. This is certainly an author whose work I will be following! Expecting a gentle love story and perhaps some sappy sentimentality, I was utterly surprised to discover quite the opposite. I am familiar with the poignant Biblical story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz and think of it as a stirring example of loyalty and love. However, I have never really considered it more deeply—until now. Stephens taps into one of the main reasons that I love Biblical fiction and retellings: it causes me to explore beneath the surface of the story and to consider the characters in depth and in the context of their historical and social situations. “Shadow Among Sheaves” does just that, focusing on the sacrifice and hardship facing two widows now seemingly alone in the world.
From the start, this historical retelling made me uncomfortable, and that’s a good thing! It pushed me out of my comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory, which enabled me to learn new information about England in the 1860s and to empathize with a new character set. The somber tone of the novel never felt too oppressive, as Stephens interjects some relief just when it is most needed without detracting from the gravity of the tale. Culture and religion collide in the aftermath of the Great Indian Rebellion of 1857, and Rena Hawley is caught in the middle. Following an impromptu marriage to a British soldier in her native India, her husband’s and father-in-law’s unexpected deaths cast shadows on Rena’s future, even as she determines to follow her mother-in-law, Nell, to England. There her identity is further obfuscated by prejudice and xenophobia: “In India, she was her father’s daughter, beloved and shrouded; here she was bruised, a worthless girl with foreign eyes whose only wealth was in the abundance of her own grief.”
This eye-opening allegory paints a sobering portrait of life as a foreigner and a destitute widow. Rena is a fascinating character because of her complexity. She is confused by English customs, and I appreciated how Stephens presented the Indian way of life with respect, despite how barbaric some aspects of it sound to our modern sensibilities. This paved the way for a better understanding of the difficulties Rena faces in trying to reconcile her old life with the new one she has chosen. Furthermore, Rena is not depicted as a moral paragon. She struggles and clings to the past, rejecting the faith of both her mother-in-law and former husband, which ultimately makes her journey all the sweeter. The same can be said of Lord Barric. His gruff exterior also serves as a shield against pain and grief, and the impact of his initial encounter with Rena creates a ripple effect that influences both of their reputations and their futures. Impressive secondary characters add to the moving panoply. For anyone on their own journey out of darkness, or who enjoys a though-provoking historical romance and redemption story, “Shadow Among Sheaves” is a must read.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Barbour Publishing and CelebrateLit and was under no obligation to post a review.