23rd Aug 2012
The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman
I’ll begin by admitting I feel a little under-qualified to comment on this text, given that I know little about Judaism or the history of Jerusalem and Roman occupation.
I snapped up the review copy in haste because Alderman’s second novel, The Lessons, is one of my favourite books of recent years.
However, The Liars’ Gospel is far from a scandalous tale of extravagant Oxford students.
Told in four parts, this novel boldly attempts to retell the story of “civilsation’s most famous execution”, and follows Yehoshuah (Jesus) as he wanders Roman-occupied Judea giving sermons and healing the sick, with an ever-growing band of loyal followers.
The first part, narrated my Miryam (Mary), finishes shortly after she has learned of her son’s death. She takes in a young boy, Gidon of Yaffo, who professes to be one of Yehoshuah’s most devoted followers, and tries to convince Miryam that her son has risen.
Gidon begs Miryam for stories of Yehoshuah’s childhood, and her anecdotes depict an abnormal, awkward child and a somewhat selfish and difficult teenager.
As someone far removed from religious restraints I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure a lot of people would find this book all kinds of blasphemous.
Part two is narrated by Iehuda of Qeriot (Judas), as he is drawn in by Yehoshuah’s influence, and becomes one of his closet confidantes. Iehuda can only watch as Yehoshuah’s mind is warped by the worship of his followers.
Their idyllic quest begins to crumble and Alderman’s inspired characterisation ensure that the reader has nothing but sympathy when the times comes for the infamous betrayal.
Yehoshuah plays a much lesser role in part three, narrated by the High Priest, Caiaphas. This chapter, alongside a subplot of Caiaphas suspecting his wife’s infidelity, begins to expand on the conflict between the people of Jerusalem and the Roman occupation.
Caiaphas is imprisoned in a constant battle to keep the peace between the ignorant and arrogant Prefect, Pilate, and the rebellious Jewish population.
This conflict reaches its peak in the fourth part, narrated by charismatic rebel leader Bar-Avo, during his lifelong quest to collapse the Roman occupation. The climax is tense and, like any good novel, has some unexpected twists and reveals.
Although the four parts do make up a strong story arc of the rise and fall of Jesus, for me the success of this novel is in looking at the four parts as short stories. Each character has their own subplots, love stories and sex scandals, and their own relationship with God and with Roman rule.
Alderman has been criticised for sometimes appearing to talk over the heads of characters, but for me in this book it works wonderfully.
At times this nod and wink to the reader is reminiscent of a play, and there is particular comedic value at the end when two characters argue over the future of religion (“Tell me again… when there are as many temples to Yehoshuah as there are to Mithras or Isis”).
Anyone that would consider this book purely historical or mythological is, in my eyes, severely underestimating it. Threads of this novel are extremely relevant at this time, not least because of the discomfort of reading about a Jewish population rebelling against a tyrannical regime in occupied Jerusalem.
The concepts of peace and rebellion are mulled over by most of the characters, with some choosing to obey the establishment for an easy life, while others remain adamant that freedom is the only answer, and that bloodshed is inevitable.
Although the circumstances are different, the waves of apathy, fear and anger are absolutely comparable with the contemporary situation of many who today find themselves in an increasingly volatile society.
I have no doubt that those who witnessed last summer’s riots will feel a sense of recognition confronted with the burning nightscapes described in this book.
Alderman’s writing is as immaculate as ever, with the sights and smells and tastes of Jerusalem crafted in vivid detail. There is an edge to this novel, a modernity that comes through in crude sex and swearing and complex female characters that ensures that The Liars’ Gospel does not read like generic historical fiction.
Having said that, the subject matter is what it is, and given that it’s a fairly long novel I wouldn’t recommend this book if it is period of history you have no interest in. I frequently referenced the list of Jewish and Angelicized names at the beginning, and it wasn’t the quickest read due to the steep learning curve.
But with Atwood’s backing, it looks like Alderman is staking her claim as one of the heavyweights, and if she keeps knocking out daring and well-crafted books like this, it’s going to become pretty obvious why.
Recommended for: People who are extremely familiar with the story of Jesus, but perhaps don’t take it too seriously…
Other recommended reading: Alderman’s first novel, Disobedience.