I downloaded a free review copy of The Liars’ Gospel before this summer and sat on it for awhile. I read this while on holiday in Ibiza and it turned out to be a surprising reading experience.
The book is told in four parts with a central theme of Yehoshuah (Jesus) execution at the cross. Yehoshuah (Jesus) as most of us know, wanders in Roman-occupied Judea giving sermons and healing the sick, as group of followers and disciples preach his messages.
‘He was a traitor, a rabble-leader, a rebel, a liar and a pretender to the throne. We have tried to forget him here.’
The first part is told from the eyes of Miryam (Mary), Jesus’ mother. Miryam is grieving for her first born son and recovering from his rejection of his family. She took in a young boy Gidon of Yaffo who is the closest to Jesus and Gidon wants Miryam to feel redeemed that her sacrifice is not in vain but for Jesus has risen from death and his message lives. While describing Yehoshuah’s early life, Miryam depicts him as an awkward and selfish child, one that kept to himself and reluctant to do any manual work to help his brothers. I find the first chapter of Miryam uncomfortable, readers of the Christian faith may find parts of this book, especially the narration of Miryam of Yehoshuah, blasphemous.
“Nothing ever happens except that God wills it. This was the teaching of Yehoshuah which Iehuda remembers every day. It is the truth. Everything that happens has been willed by God.”
The second part is narrated by Iehuda of Qeriot (Judas). Iehuda is seeking for the truth and he is drawn by Yehoshuah’s influence, and becomes one of his closet followers and disciples. Over time Iehuda began to doubt Yehoshuah’s teaching, and felt that Yehoshuah’s preaching is contradictory at times, self adulation in another. Alderman in her superb and deft writing succeed in crafting Iehuda as a sympathetic figure, drawing on his own personal pain and eventual betrayal of Yehoshuah.
“He finds his wheedling politician’s smile creeping across his mouth and he stops it, pursing his lips,making his face stop lying for him.”
The third part is told by the High Priest, Caiaphas. To Caiaphas, Yehoshuah was a blasphemous troublemaker, who is gaining influence in the Jews community. The High Priest is caught in between the need to keep the peace between the ignorant and arrogant Prefect, Pilate, and the rebellious Jewish population under the Roman’s power. The temple is in danger of being seen as sychophants of the Roman empires and the Jewish population is angry. On the side, Caiaphas has a domestic problem of his own, he suspects his wife of adultery and he tries to set the scenes to caught his wife red-handed or prove her innocence.
“What does it take to make a man follow you? Not Love. For love a man will mourn you and bury you when you are dead, but not follow you into battle. For a man to follow you, it must seem that you are the one who knows the way out. Everyone person is in a dark place. every person wants to feel that some other man can guide them back into the light.”
This conflict reaches its peak in the fourth part, narrated by charismatic rebel leader, murderer Bar-Avo, during his lifelong quest to collapse the Roman occupation. The climax is tense and, surprisingly Alderman draws up a very good chaotic, fighting scenes. One of the most memorable scenes was the Prefect asking the crowds to choose between the execution of Yehoshuah or Bar-Avo.
The four stories has its common thread in Jesus’ life and the characters shared a common insecurity and doubts prevalent in the conditions under the Roman’s rule. There is a religious revelation waiting to happen. It also makes me wonder if the only way to end a tyrannical regime is bloodshed, and if there is an alternative way such as love and peace, as Bar-Avo’s friend Isaac suggests that the growing worship of a Jew may bring greater kindness towards the Jewish people and thus be freed.
It is a very beautiful, heart rending and visceral book. I think I may have found another potential favourite author and I am inspired to read Alderman other novels. Despite its uncomfortable religious speculation and ambiguity I find this very entertaining. There was seed of doubt that planted that made me wonder if Jesus was one of the many inconsequential preachers in that time that managed to be more influential and gain traction by having a bigger base of followers. I wonder why the book title is called “The Liars’ Gospel” and wonder in part if it was trying to cover the effect of possible inflammatory response from the blasphemy of Jesus’ holiness?
Every man must choose what to dedicate his life to and he has chosen this: only peace. not justice, because peace and justice are enemies. Not vengeance, not loyalty, not pride, not family, not friends, not – on occasion – dignity. Only ever peace, which demands the full load of a man’s life. but his life has not been enough.
This make me all the more curious and I am compelled to read Reza Aslan’s Zealot soon. I am keen to know what is the difference of Jesus Christ as depicted in the bible (which I am well versed with) with the historical account of Jesus of Nazareth? The book ended with a final reminder that due to the failure of the uprising, the Jews began its diaspora.
Storytellers know that every story is at least partly a lie. Every story could be told in four different ways, or forty or four thousand. Every emphasis or omission is a kind of lie, shaping a moment to make a point. – Epilogue
Religious and historical aside, I think Alderman writes brilliantly. I think the enjoyment factor may depend on how much one could stomach her unfavourable speculations about Jesus. It hasn’t put me off, I love the way she writes and how she personalised and developed each character so deeply. It made me want to read it again.
I thank the publisher for giving out this review copy, without me asking for it.
Have you read this book? or any other book by Naomi Alderman? What do you think about it?
Kindle ebook. Publisher: Viking 2013; Length: 271 pages; Setting: Roman rule Jerusalem. Source: Review copy. Finished reading at: 3rd September 2013 in Ibiza.
About the writer:
Born in London, Alderman was educated at South Hampstead High School and Lincoln College, Oxford where she read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. She then went on to study creative writing at the University of East Anglia before becoming a novelist. In 2007, The Sunday Times named her their Young Writer of the Year.
She was the lead writer for Perplex City, an alternate reality game, at Mind Candy from 2004 through June, 2007. She went on to become lead writer on the running video game Zombies, Run! which launched in 2012. She has written articles for several British newspapers, and has a regular technology column in The Guardian.
In 2012 Alderman was appointed Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, England. In 2013, she was included in the Granta list of 20 best young writers. Her father is Geoffrey Alderman, an academic who has specialised in Anglo-Jewish history.
Alderman’s literary début came in 2006 with Disobedience, a well-received (if controversial) novel about a rabbi’s daughter from North London who becomes a lesbian, which won her the 2006 Orange Award for New Writers. Since its publication in the United Kingdom, it has been issued in the USA, Germany, Israel, Holland, Poland, France, Italy, Hungary and Croatia. Her second novel, The Lessons, was published in 2010.
Her novel The Liars’ Gospel (Viking) was published in paperback in 2012. Reviewing the book, Jewish cultural magazine Jewish Renaissance described it as “an entertaining, engaging read” but found the story it told “uncomfortable and problematic. Your enjoyment of the novel will depend on how you respond to the premise that Jesus was, potentially, an ‘inconsequential preacher'”. Set in and around Jerusalem between Pompey’s Siege of Jerusalem (63 BC) and Titus’ Siege of Jerusalem (70), it is narrated in four main sections from the perspective of four key figures: Mary (mother of Jesus), Judas Iscariot, Caiaphas and Barabbas.
All three novels have been serialised on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime.