Sunday, 4 August 2013

'He stared at himself again in the water and saw a different man'

Naomi Alderman was one of the many inclusions on the Granta 2013 list of best young British novelists that I was very disappointed with (Note: is it wrong that I now want to make this a much more positive post having found out that Naomi Alderman was the lead writer for the Zombies, Run! app, which I've heard amazing things about from friends, although I don't have the right gadgets to use it myself? I already knew that Alderman has written fascinating and illuminating pieces for the Guardian about the relationship between creativity and computer games, so she certainly deserves kudos for that). When the list was published, I had only read Alderman's first two novels, Disobedience and The Lessons, but both had seemed to me to be enjoyable, lightly literary reads, with little more to them than that. (In fact, I was particularly annoyed at Granta's choice of Alderman because I felt that it had wrecked my enjoyment of these previous novels; I'm such a contrary person that anything that seems to me to be 'over-hyped' has to work extra hard to prove itself again.) However, I'd always found her novels readable, so I decided to try her latest, The Liars' Gospel, wondering if this was what Granta had based its selection upon.

I would have loved this novel when I was fourteen years old; really, I think I would, given its retelling of the life of Christ set within the Jewish context in which it happened, and the occasional opportunities this offers for illuminating reconsiderations of certain aspects of the gospels. The retelling of the scene from John 12 where Jesus is anointed with the expensive perfume spikenard, for example, is especially striking. Of course, much of the strength of Alderman's retelling of this incident comes from her choice to tell it from the perspective of Judas Iscariot - or 'Iehuda from Queriot', as the non-Romanised version of his name might read - and this touches upon something else I would have loved about this novel as a teenager. The four first-person Biblical perspectives Alderman chooses - Mary, Judas, Caiaphas and Barabbas, as most will know them - allow four different perspectives on the life of Jesus. However, despite my adolescent love of switching perspectives, I think I would have been disappointed by this even then; the reimagining of Judas as a man of principle is clearly the most satisfying story here, and the other three narratives don't really measure up. Alderman's commitment to portray Jesus as a real historical figure, although admirable, prevents her from exploring some of the most interesting questions raised by the gospels; in Mary's narrative, for example, I suppose I was hoping for something more like Carol Ann Duffy's fantastic poem 'The Virgin Punishing the Infant' (from Selling Manhattan), which was perhaps my fault for having inaccurate expectations, but did pose the question of what Alderman's narrative is doing instead.

And apart from the things about this novel I would have liked as a teenager - the iconoclasm and the insistence on giving individual voices to secondary characters - I'm not sure that it is doing very much, despite moments of strength such as the spikenard scene and Caiaphas's musings on what the beliefs of his disciples really rest upon. I can see why it would have taken bravery to write it, but I'm not sure what it gives the reader beyond a deeper understanding of the historical Jesus - and I think a novel ought to give something more. Certainly, it doesn't make me any more convinced that Alderman deserved her Granta ranking. So this is a short review, because I'm perplexed, and reading some of the press reviews of this novel hasn't really helped. Perhaps I owe Alderman a review of Zombies, Run! ...

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