A satisfying historical novel displays a flair for narrative and credible characters grounded on a solid base of research. The more remote the period, the tougher the challenge. In “The Liars’ Gospel,” (Little Brown), Naomi Alderman, a British writer, takes on perhaps the most difficult challenge of all.
Alderman, who won the Orange Prize for “Disobedience” in 2006, presents four perspectives on the life and death of a Jewish teacher, Yehoshuah. We know these figures as the Virgin Mary, Judas Iscariot, Caiaphas and Barrabas. All are Jews. His mother, Miryam, is living with the ever-present absence of her firstborn; Iehuda from Queriot is a friend and follower who comes to doubt Yehoshua; Caiaphas is the Cohen Gadol appointed by Rome who struggles to maintain peace; Bar-Avo is a lifelong fighter against Rome.
“The Liars’ Gospel” is essentially composed of four novellas and the success of the book depends on how believable and compelling each narrator is – and what we make of Yehoshua overall.
Why the liars’ gospel? Each character finds him or herself lying very consciously at different points in time. Yet they don’t lie to themselves and manage to maintain the reader’s trust.Miryam knows that she lost her son when he rejected his nuclear family years before he was killed. Iehuda’s honesty forces him to question his charismatic leader.
Caiaphas’s overwhelming priority is to protect the peace and ensure that the Temple runs smoothly day to day. In today’s terms, it’s akin to running the Vatican with a myriad of small details to which attention must be paid. The madman, who causes a stir among the money-changers and is later captured, is merely a disturbance. The Cohen Gadol does not seek his death, just containment.
From the opening of the novel with Pompey entering Jerusalem in 63 BCE, Rome is a colossus, affecting the lives of everyone from the most humble to the most powerful. As Alderman has stated, the Romans were more like the Mafia than the Nazis. They weren’t seeking to destroy; rather they were looking to extract value. Ongoing violence and resistance didn’t make sense to them.
Through all of this, inevitably, Yehoshua remains ambiguous, indefinable. We come closest to him in Iehuda. (While liberal Christians have apparently applauded Alderman’s accomplishment, for others this version of Yehoshua may be a leap too far.)
I couldn’t put the book down and finished it over a weekend. Alderman’s pace is breathless even when she lingers on concrete details such as sacrificing a lamb or making matzah. While her research appears to be meticulous, the novel’s verve and pace transcend the weight of historical detail.
Sharon Anstey is a business consultant and writer in New York.