There seems to have been a fair few retellings of the gospel stories of late – Lazarus is Dead – Richard Beard; The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ – Philip Pullman; The Childhood of Jesus – J.M. Coetzee – and now Granta Young British Novelist, Naomi Alderman’s The Liars’ Gospel.
Alderman’s take on the tales is to look at the New Testament through the lens of storytelling:
Storytellers know that every story is at least partly a lie. Every story could be told in at least four different ways, or forty or four thousand. Every emphasis or omission is a kind of a lie, shaping a moment to make a point…Do not imagine that a storyteller is unaware of the effect of every word they choose. Do not suppose for a moment that an impartial observer exists.
The four storytellers that Alderman chooses to tell the tale of ‘…Yehoshuah, whose name the Romans changed to Jesus…’ are certainly not impartial: Miryam, Yehoshuah’s mother; Iehuda from Qeriot (Judas Iscariot); Caiaphas, high priest at the temple and the man behind the plot to kill Jesus; Bar-Avo (Barabas). Each character taking a substantial chapter each, covering their association with/relation to the story of Yehoshuah and moving the story forwards covering the period from his childhood to his death and rumours of his resurrection.
But The Liars’ Gospel is not simply the story of Jesus. It is also the story of those affected by him. Alderman writes convincingly about motherhood, grief, betrayal, marriage and the brutality of life under the Roman occupation.
There is no doubt from the opening pages of the book that this is going to be a bloody and often savage story:
Hold yourself steady. Whisper the sacred words. Grasp the knife as you have practiced. Plunge the blade into the neck swiftly, just below the jaw. There must be no pausing. The knife must be sharp enough that almost no pressure is needed. Move it down evenly and quickly, severing the tendons and nerves as the blood begins to flow and the lamb’s muscles spasm. Withdraw. The entire motion should take less than the time of one in-breath.
This is a story told in precise, hard-hitting, intense prose. That is not to say it is monotone or lacks pace – quite the opposite – but that it’s the work of a writer who’s reached maturity. A writer who is aware of the effect of every word she has chosen; a writer who asks for an investment in their work; a writer to whom a devotion of time and intellect provides a hefty reward indeed.
Thanks to Little, Brown for the review copy.