Have you found Jesus? The publishing industry certainly has, and they’re not letting him go. Why would they, when he’s responsible for so many sales? There’s that perennial best-seller, the Holy Bible, for a start, for which Jesus can take at least half the credit. There’s the multitudinous scholarly texts and mediations on his legacy; there’s all those prayer books and hymnals that have been churned out since medieval times. And then, more recently, there is the fiction. I sometimes wonder if we have CS Lewis to blame for this, if he set the ball rolling with “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,” an allegory of Christ’s crucifixion, with Aslan the majestic lion sacrificing himself for Edmund the sinner. In the past fifty years there have been a slew of novels reimagining the life of the carpenter’s son from Galilee who claimed he was the son of God… “The Last Temptation of Christ”, the banned Kazantzakis novel which became the banned Martin Scorsese film; “The Passion” the movie about a man preaching poverty which made Mel Gibson a billionaire; “King Jesus”, by Robert Graves, bestselling author of “I, Claudius”; my personal favourite, Norman Mailer’s predictably earthy and libidinous Christ in “The Gospel According to the Son”; and then, in the last twenty-four months alone, an unholy trinity- “Christ The Lord” by vampire doyenne Anne Rice, “ The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ,” by the award-winning and much loved Phillip Pullman, and “The Final Testament of the Holy Bible” by James Frey, who likes to make up stuff.
All of which is why I found Leslie Cannold’s first novel, The Book of Rachael, so refreshing. Cannold approaches the time-worn tale of the life and death of Jesus Christ from a new and intriguing perspective- that of Jesus’s sister, Rachael, who falls in love with his best friend and eventual betrayer, Judas Iscariot. As she notes in a post-script to the book, Cannold was inspired to imagine Rachael’s life after watching a BBC documentary where the names, fates and even burial places of Jesus’s brothers were itemized, but- as the narrator casually announced- nothing had been recorded concerning his sisters. That those sisters existed is confirmed by the bible in the gospel of Mark, yet the status of women at that time was far too lowly for any further details of their life to have been set down. The challenge to ethicist and social activist Cannold must have been irresistible. In The Book of Rachael she sets out to correct the balance.
It’s an intriguing premise, and one on which Cannold delivers. Rachael is a fiery, rebellious but hugely likeable character. A natural mimic, she learns to write the alphabet (an activity forbidden to females) after only one lesson; she apprentices herself to the blind crone, Bindy, and becomes a skilled midwife and healer. Even more intriguing however, at least for this reader, is what Cannold does with the story of Jesus. Cannold’s Jesus (here called Joshua) is the seed of an illegitimate rather than immaculate conception; a good- but very human- man, one who serves his father and his Lord, but also falls in love and commits the sin of premarital sex. When his pregnant lover, Maryam of Magdalene, is taken away in shame by her father Joshua immediately leaves their town of Nazareth and searches for her throughout Galilee, along the way cursing the priests and the law-makers who would have her stoned for sinning. He quickly accumulates a following of outcasts and disciples, who travel with him to Jerusalem, where Maryam is eventually found.
The Joshua of the early sections of the book is clear-headed and compassionate, a reasoned and rational philosopher respected by both Judas (here named Judah) and Rachael. As the novel nears its climax, however, his thinking becomes more and more deluded, then dangerous, until Judah is left with what he sees as only one course of action to prevent them all from being killed. That the reader feels, in the end, more sympathy for Judah than for Joshua is not the only unorthodox twist in the tale. An avowed atheist, Cannold cleverly plays with many of the central events of the gospels- the raising of Lazarus, the over-turning of the moneylenders in the temple, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem- reimagining them from a secular point of view. (Spoiler alert) Tellingly, though the crucifixion scene is almost unbearably moving, there is no resurrection. Many of Cannold’s characters may recognise Joshua as the messiah, but she herself does not- a dichotomy which keeps the book absorbing and engaging to the end.
As, too, does the character of Rachael, who we first meet aged five and leave in her thirties. Though Joshua and Judah both weaken and waver at times as the story unfolds, Rachael does not. She remains constant- headstrong, compassionate, both cursed and saved by her fierce intelligence. Cannold has clearly researched the era thoroughly, and brings it vividly to life: the sights, the smells, the stranglehold of both the Romans and the law. In subject matter and setting, The Book of Rachael reminded me strongly of Anita Diamant’s bestseller The Red Tent; in tone I found it reminiscent of Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. Despite this, it is truly original; a unique and appealing take on one of the oldest stories in the book.
This review first appeared on mamamia.com.au
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.