I have long admired Tessa Afshar, a romance novelist who crafts historical fiction set around the time of Christ. As a kidlit fan, I’m not a big reader of adult fiction. And I confess that I stopped reading romance novels about the time I realized that lasting love often involves more laundry than long walks on the beach.
However, I once met Afshar at a writer’s conference and was intrigued when I heard her speak about growing up in the Middle East in a non-practicing Muslim family, going to boarding school in England and coming to know Jesus through a miraculous dream. So I followed her on Facebook.
Recently, Afshar posted a request soliciting chicken soup recipes. I responded with mine, including a few key tricks: add a splash of vinegar to the water in which you simmer the chicken bones and squeeze a generous slice of lemon into the finished broth. In thanks, Afshar mailed me a copy of her latest book, Jewel of the Nile (Tyndale, 2021).
Not to be confused with the Danny DeVito romcom by the same name, Afshar’s tale is an intricately woven story about an orphaned young woman, Chariline, from the ancient Kingdom of Cush, seeking to unravel the truth about her parents. Chariline’s search leads her to Rome and into the arms of a handsome merchant, Theo, who helps unravel her family mystery.
Because of her background, Afshar brings the ancient Mediterranean world to life with colorful details, such as her description of Caesarea, a large seaport with a mix of Hellenic and Aramaic-speaking Jews, Greeks and Romans. “The coastline itself offered no natural harbor. Herod had managed, through a wondrous feat of engineering, to create enormous breakwaters made of lime and volcanic ash,” Afshar writes. “On one such promontory, he had built his own palace, extending straight into the sea, like a stubborn finger defiantly pointing at the briny waters.”
Afshar’s story also includes historical people, such as Aquila, an early follower of Christ. In one scene, Theo tells Chariline about a time when he felt forsaken. “My friend Aquila once told me that the Lord made a special promise to his followers,” Theo says. “After his resurrection, he told them, I am with you always.”
“I needed to learn that Yeshua does not abandon,” Theo continues, using the Hebrew name for Jesus. “He does not walk away. He does not leave and forsake. His always is trustworthy. Even when the people you love fail you, he does not. He does not leave you. He is with you. Always.”
In a time when adult fiction is often filled with dark themes, Afshar, who holds a master’s degree from Yale Divinity, offers readers a reason to hope. Jewel of the Nile is filled with love, mystery and adventure. But more than that, it promises that even when life is dark, there is a Greater Love that holds us all.
Know kids who are afraid of the dark?
My fall children’s picture book The Lantern Hill Light Parade includes a song I sing to my own children to help them fall asleep without fear. “Jesus is the Light. His love makes me bright. Jesus is the light that shines through me. No darkness can stay. All fear goes away. Jesus is the Light that shines through me.” Available online or through your local bookstore by request.
Want to meet Meadow?
Join me and an exciting array of Maine writers at the Bath Book Bash, Saturday, Sept. 18, from 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. outside under the tents at the Library Park in Bath, Maine. I’ll be signing books and leading a workshop for elementary-age children on inventing your own holiday. For a complete schedule, go to www.bathbookbash.org Please share. Hope to see you there!
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes from a little house in the big woods of Midcoast Maine. She is also the author of the children’s picture book The Lantern Hill Light Parade, celebrating the fall harvest, and four other books in the Lantern Hill Farm series.