Horn's new novel is A Guide for the Perplexed.
Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished a marvelous book that I completely expected to loathe: The Liar’s Gospel by Naomi Alderman.Learn more about the author and her work at Dara Horn's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.
Why did I think I’d hate it? Well, it’s a historical novel about Jesus. I’ve got nothing against Jesus, but the likelihood of there being anything new to say about him seemed rather low—and the fictionalization of massively-mythologized historical figures almost always disappoints me. (The movie Lincoln may have been a brilliant piece of filmmaking, but it still bored me to tears.) On top of that, like many people with a decent Jewish education, I already know more about Roman-occupied Judea than any normal person should—and I suspected this alone would disqualify me from enjoying the book. But when I heard a brilliant interview on Tablet magazine’s podcast with Alderman—who, like me, had the kind of education that encourages absurd levels of knowledge about Roman-occupied Judea—I decided to give it a try.
Wow. For starters, Alderman is a beautifully subtle and elegant writer. She could have written a manual about air conditioner repair and I’d still read it. (Granta magazine recently recognized her as one of the “Best Young British Novelists.”)
She is also truly telling a story here that will be very new for most Christian readers, and profoundly familiar for Jewish ones. This is a novel about Jesus as a Jew, in a deep sense. It is told from the point of view of other figures in the Christian tradition, whose Hebrew names are all restored to them. (Jesus is Yehoshuah, Mary is Miryam and so on.) Alderman embeds the story of this Jewish man in Roman Judea, a society united by a faith in a God whose presence abides at the Temple in Jerusalem, but divided about how to contend with its ongoing oppression by the Roman empire—some choosing accommodation, some choosing rebellion, some searching for miracles. Many of the mysteries that are central to Christianity are left ambiguous enough here that a believing Christian reader will find much that will intrigue. (My favorite was the chapter from the point of view of Iehuda—Judas Iscariot—whose journey from faith to doubt is rendered so ingeniously that one shares all of his conflicting emotions about the teacher he follows and later betrays.) But the novel’s greatest strengths are the subtlety of its characters. You will feel the deep joys and sorrows of these characters and be convinced of each of their perspectives, even if the next chapter takes you to a completely different point of view. Which it will.
More than a novel about Jesus, this is really a phenomenally written historical novel about ancient Judea: about the popular uprisings against the Romans, about the rise of charismatic sages, about the Temple service, and about daily life in a way that will feel, to a reader with a certain education, like reuniting with an old friend who remembers all of your inside jokes. (I found myself saying things like “Wow, she actually wrote a scene about a sotah!” I’m sure you don’t know what a sotah is. You won’t be confused, trust me.) But what the novel will leave you with, regardless of where you’re coming from, is the sense of struggle, agony and despair of people fighting hopelessly against a vast empire that had enslaved half the known world—people for whom the legacy of Jesus would ultimately become something like the opposite of redemption.
I would love to know what believing Christian readers think of this book.
Horn is the author of the novels All Other Nights, The World to Come, and In the Image.
The Page 99 Test: The World to Come.
The Page 99 Test: All Other Nights.
The Page 69 Test: A Guide for the Perplexed.