Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gifted storyteller wraps biblical novel in beautiful lies and enchanting prose

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Take careful note of the location of the apostrophe in the title. This novel is not about a single liar: it is about liars, plural.

There are, in fact, four principal liars here. And, no, they do not lie about Jesus, as you might guess. They lie about other things. They lie in similar ways but for different reasons. And they lie a lot.

This is British writer Naomi Alderman's third novel, released to coincide with the Easter holiday, but it is much unlike her previous two. Disobedience (2006), winner of the Orange Award for New Writers, was about contemporary orthodox Judaism, secularism and lesbianism in her native London. The Lessons (2010) was set firmly in the world of privileged British academia and explored the intrusion of a naif onto that turf.

The Liars' Gospel is very different. It is a kind of non-musical Jesus Christ Superstar.

The book is framed by and rife with ancient violence. The short prologue describes in wrenching detail the slaughter of a lamb in the Temple of Jerusalem, something that occurred so persistently that the draining of life-blood had become routine. Ritual, habitual death sets the novel's agenda.

Next is a thick description of Roman general Pompey's devastatingly effective but oddly clement invasion of Jerusalem in 63 BC.

The epilogue echoes and inflates this loudly, describing future-Emperor Titus's brutal siege, capture and decimation of Jerusalem in AD 70, an assault that knew no clemency.

In between, we listen to imaginative stories of Jesus (here called Yehoshuah to seize his Jewish heritage and forestall his Roman transformation). In four sections, tales about and from those in the orbit of Yehoshuah are told. The man himself is barely here. We only glimpse him, hear rumours about him, find out news of him after the fact.

The first of the four is Miryam (Mary), his mother. Her son is lost to her and is curiously replaced by a wandering teenager, found near-frozen in the hills.

She cares for him as her own and when his life comes into Roman peril because of his pre-existent commitment to her now-dead Yehoshuah, she lies to save him. She jeopardizes her whole village to save her phantom son.

The second of the four is Iehuda of Qeriot (Judas Iscariot). He is in Yehoshuah's inner circle but, of these, he is the only one with the nerve to contest him. He finds himself in a spot where he must do what he must do and he lies to sacrifice the life of Yehoshuah but preserve its message. And he lies ever after to preserve himself.

The third is Caiaphas, the high priest of the Temple in Yehoshuah's last days. Roman-appointed, he tends the Temple and its people. To keep them safe, he lies. Every day. It is, he thinks, for the greater good.

The fourth is Bar-Avo (Barabbas), a religio-political rebel since his mid-teens. He is prone to scheming and zealous violence. Brilliant, he is constantly initiating and even controlling riots but always eludes Rome's sword.

For Bar-Avo, Rome is an unjust occupier that simply must be overthrown, whatever the cost. Keen to die violently for his belief, he becomes a leader of thousands of covert rebels and his movement becomes more than a thorn in the Roman Prefect's side.

Pilate eventually is able to capture him and ought to kill him brutally and publicly but there is a wrinkle: Pilate has captured Yehoshuah, too.

He interviews both criminals as he deliberates their fate. Bar-Avo lies. Yehoshuah does not. Bar-Avo lives. Yehoshuah does not.

Alderman, who is in her late 30s, has a small Canadian connection. She was selected in 2012 by Toronto Margaret Atwood as her mentee as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. One assumes then that Atwood had some input into this novel.

Alderman is unquestionably a gifted storyteller and she knows why: it is because she, too, is skilled at lying. "Every story," she concludes, "has an author, some teller of lies."

She feels this so deeply that she finds herself forced to include an appendix, a "note on sources." Here she defensively asserts that much of this "novel" is actually true.

To document this, she quickly rounds up her sources: the works of the prolific Jewish historian Josephus, the Talmud and the Gospels of the New Testament.

Alderman is correct. Her structuring facts are well-grounded. Scholars of religious, political or social history would feel hard-pressed to dispute them.

On the contrary, they will envy her enchanting -- if unadorned -- prose, her canny evocation of sights, sounds, tastes and smells. They will marvel at the way this still-beginning novelist is able to evoke the past so vividly.

She's cherry-picked her data, of course, but she's wrapped it in beautiful lies and offered it as a sacrifice for thought.

Laurence Broadhurst teaches in the departments of religion & culture and classics at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 J10

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