Tag Archives: Historical

The Liars’ Gospel – Naomi Alderman: A Review

the liars gospel - naomi aldermanYesterday morning, I picked up Naomi Alderman’s The Liars’ Gospel just to see what it was like. I had no real intention of reading it until the end but that’s exactly what I ended up doing.

Now, don’t be put off when I tell you that this is a book about Jesus. The reaction is to summon in your mind the image of some pious reflection of the life and works of God’s only son. That’s exactly what The Liars’ Gospel isn’t.

True, Jesus, or Yehoshuah, does form the epicentre around which the story unfolds but this is really the tale of the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and its brutal and bloody consequences.

The book is separated into four parts, each one a ‘gospel’ of a particular character. First, we hear the story of Miryam – you’d probably know her better as Mary. Here, the grieving mother harbours Gidon of Yaffo, a fugitive from a nearby village where a rebellion (one of many) has broken out. This rebel, little more than a teenage boy, is a follower of her son and brings news of his resurrection. As much as her heart wants to believe it, this is something she cannot accept as true.

Gidon is hungry for stories of his saviour but Miryam has none to give. However, we are treated to the tale of a strange boy who, much to his father’s (his biological father, at least) disgust, will not take a wife or otherwise behave as a man of the time should. He asks endless questions and wastes his time marvelling at nature.

Later, we feel Miryam’s sense of rejection as the adult Yehoshuah chooses a new family – his followers – and will scarcely acknowledge the one into which he was born. Despite her best efforts, Miryam cannot convince her son to return to the relative safety of his hometown and, even before he is crucified, she resigns herself to his loss.

Next up, we hear the tale of Judas, known here as Iehuda of Qeriot. One of Yehoshuah’s first followers, Iehuda watches helplessly as his old friend becomes intoxicated by the myth that has grown up around him. He can see that Yehoshuah has, willingly or otherwise, been used as a convenient tool for rebellion – a figurehead for a movement dedicated to removing the Romans from Jerusalem. The godly cause in which Iehuda once believed has become a ridiculous folly and little more than another cult.

He tries to make Yehoshuah see reason but is met with the same cryptic questions that he has come to expect. Caught in a crisis of faith and fearful for his life, Iehuda does the only thing he can and thus cements his name in history as the great betrayer. He reluctantly accepts his reward, changes his identity and allows the lie of his suicide to spread.

The third part concerns Caiaphas, the High Priest of the great Temple of Jerusalem – a figure the bible would have us believe as heartless and cynically concerned with the Temple’s financial interests. In this version, Caiaphas is a victim of circumstance. He is under pressure from Pilate to provide money for an aqueduct.

Again and again he refuses, rightly stating that the gold in the Temple’s coffers has been donated by the people for the upkeep of the Temple alone. He finally crumbles and in a risky attempt to point the finger of blame at his cruel Roman master, inadvertently instigates a riot in which hundreds of civilians are killed.

For me, the fourth and final story was the most interesting. This is the story of Bar-Avo (Barabbas), the thief, the rebel and the murderer of Roman soldiers. We hear of his rise through the ranks of the rebellion through acts of defiance and, of course, great remorseless violence. Through his bravery, he becomes notorious as a freedom fighter. He only wants to rid his land of these Roman scum an keeps the favour of the people by action, not empty rhetoric and preaching.

His fight becomes a counterweight to that of Yehoshuah’s followers. Much like Yehoshuah, we see him travelling the land recruiting men, one at a time, to the cause. Following an act of betrayal, Bar-Avo finds himself in a cell with the man proclaimed to be King of the Jews – a man he finds puzzling and disturbing. In a great scene, he uses Pilate’s vanity against him and surreptitiously negotiates his freedom.

I found this book fascinating as a piece of historical fiction. Naomi Alderman has stripped away the supernatural elements of the man we know as Jesus and portrays him as merely a man. Sure, he seems to be a man with more than his fair share of mental illness but what man is without such faults?

I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone but, having looked at some of the less-than-favourable reviews on Goodreads, it probably won’t go down too well with devout Christians. If you’re a Christian who expects their image of Christ the Lord to be reinforced by this book, I’d advise you to steer clear. If, on the other hand, you’ve got an open-mind and even a fleeting interest in Middle-Eastern history, you’ll probably be swept away.

HHhH – Laurent Binet: A Review

hhhh-by-laurent-binetSometimes a book comes along which changes the way you think about books. In HHhH, Laurent Binet redefines historical fiction and injects some much-needed life into an arguably tired genre.

The book charts the fates of paratroopers Jozef Gabcík and Jan Kubiš and the blighted Operation Anthropoid. Their mission is to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague and the man dubbed by Hitler to be “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich”.

And he is a right bastard.

The book’s title refers to the famous Nazi in-joke, “Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich” – Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich – marking Heydrich as a chief architect of the Final Solution. Binet had originally planned to call it Operation Anthropoide but his publishers dissuaded him on the grounds that it sounded too much like science fiction. Now booksellers across the world are faced with another problem – HHhH is a title that’s almost impossible to pronounce without hyperventilating.

But it’s not just about killing Nazis. HHhH is a book for writers and in it, Binet wrestles with the dilemma of writing a historically accurate account without letting his own imagination fill in the gaps. He constantly refers to other accounts of the period, scorning their inaccuracy and implicitly highlighting the superiority of his own book.

The author’s real triumph is his ability to maintain the excitement and suspense even when we know that our heroes are embarking on a suicide mission. As their hour of judgement approaches, Binet stalls, withholding a climax which he himself cannot bear to confront. This makes for genuine edge-of-the-seat reading that rivals any mass-market thriller.

A measure of the book’s success is its universal appeal. Almost all of my fellow booksellers have read it and loved it. That’s quite a feat when you consider that we rarely all agree on anything. From a marketing standpoint, HHhH looks like a “man’s book” and that has been the main stumbling block whenever we try to recommend it. But, so enamoured are we that none of us will take no for an answer, stopping just short of holding customers hostage until they agree to buy it.

For me, HHhH is the best book I’ve read all year. That’s something that I would usually have great difficulty saying but in this case, I’ll gladly run up a mountain just to shout it out. It’s different, it’s exciting, it’s educational and it’s funny and it has landed right at the top of my ‘essential recommendations’ list.

If you haven’t read it yet then I’m not talking to you again until you do. That’s how passionately I feel about it.

If you have read it, and now feel a gaping void in your life, then worry not, because you probably haven’t read it all. Binet was so scathing about Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones that the publishers decided to omit a whole section of the book. Thanks to themillions.com, that section can be read in full here.

Enjoy!

The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt: a review

 

The Sisters Brothers - Patrick DeWitt

“…The Sisters Brothers is the book the Coen Brothers might have written had they not become film-makers instead.”

In The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, Charlie and Eli Sisters are guns-for-hire, sent on a mission by the Commodore. With a name like the Commodore, you have to be involved in some shady dealings that require the help of hit men. He sends the assassins to San Francisco to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, again, a fine name to embody a mysterious character waiting at the end of an epic journey.

We follow these outlaws on their odyssey across the dust-strewn plains of an America still in the grip of the manic hunt for gold. The Sisters Brothers are synonymous with death and destruction and everyone knows to give them a wide berth. As the story progresses, Charlie and Eli find their reputation waiting for them wherever they go in the form of the fear and mistrust of the layman. They meet an ensemble of losers, victims of circumstance, and once-normal men tipped over the edge of sanity by the harsh realisation that their American dream was just that.

-“…I am happy to welcome you to a town peopled in morons exclusively. Furthermore, I hope that your transformation to moron is not an unpleasant experience.”  

Despite its grim setting, DeWitt’s Gold-Rush America has an air of the fantastical about it. The descriptions of the landscape are minimal enough to have been captured from a dream and every character seems to represent their own misfortune.

It’s a funny book, mainly because it is peopled by a collection of sharp-tongued, cuss-slinging smartasses. The one-liners and imaginative put-downs are so regular as to provide an honest-to-god pulse for the story.

The book isn’t without its harsh and gruesome scenes (There’s a particular incident with an ailing horse that I won’t go into here), but our characters can find their own joy in the strangest places. Towards the beginning of the book, Eli, the narrator, is introduced to a new-fangled doo-hickey called a toothbrush and he is so awed that he spends the rest of the story extolling its virtues to everyone he meets.

-“I will never be a leader of men, and neither do I want to be one, and neither do I want to be led.  I thought:  I want to lead only myself.”  

All in all, this is a tale of redemption.

The brothers come to a head when Eli begins to question the life they’ve chosen. He dreams of a simpler life without any killing, but his brother doesn’t share his sentimental bullshit. Death is paying work after all.

This book made the shortlist for the 2011 Man Booker prize and has received great critical acclaim since its publication. It’s still one of my go-to books whenever a customer is looking for something good, something different and I’ve yet to hear any complaints.

If you’ve already had the pleasure, be sure to pick up a copy of Ablutions, DeWitt’s first novel. This is a contemporary tale of alcoholism and inertia set in a seedy Hollywood bar peopled by a wealth of human detritus.

As for the future, there hasn’t yet been a peep from DeWitt regarding any upcoming projects. It’s a shame to have to wait, but in the meantime, you can always read the Sisters Brothers again.

Buy The Sisters Brothers at Waterstones.com