Saturday 12 February 2011

Book Review: Phillip Pullman – The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

I have adored some of Pullman’s other books; the His Dark Materials trilogy and the Sally Lockhart Quartet in particular, so choosing this book seemed a bit of a no-brainer. The Dark Materials books feel very critical of the church, and religion in general, and so this treatment of the story of Jesus (our Prophet Isa, AS) had me quite curious.

The book is part of the Canongate Myths series which has a number of well-known authors re-telling famous stories. I previously read The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s irreverent retelling of part of the Odysseus story and enjoyed it, so had good expectations of this book.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ tells the story of two twin brothers Jesus and Christ, born in mysterious circumstances that never become quite clear. The boys live in Nazareth with their carpenter father and mother Mary. Christ appears precocious for a child, well-versed in the Jewish faith and rabbinical law and with high expectations from his mother for the man he will become. Jesus is closer to his father and more like an ordinary boy – mischievous and often rebellious. As they grow older, Jesus begins to preach to all those who will listen about returning to the roots of faith and observing Gods law whilst railing against organised religion. He soon attracts a faithful following and comes into conflicts with the men of the synagogue and the Romans. Christ, his early brilliance now overshadowed by Jesus’ passionate preaching, takes it upon himself to start recording what Jesus is saying. He is approached by a mysterious stranger who encourages him in his endeavour and suggests he embellishes and revises his written account in order to show his brother in the best light. The mysterious stranger also reminds Christ of the need for a church to help the people understand the word of God.

The novel picks out events in Jesus’s life – the Sermon on the Mount, the meeting with Mary Magdelane, the chasing of the money-changers out of the temple and retells them

Pullman supposedly split the story into that of two characters to highlight the conflicting ways Jesus seems to be portrayed in the New Testament. A plot device that almost works, but not quite. I never felt that I truly go to the heart of either character. Jesus remains an enigma until almost the end of the book when Pullman’s treatment of him and his internal dialogue with God left me almost bereft. On the other hand we are given much more insight into the tortured personality of Christ, but again, I left him at the end of the book feeling depressed and as if his was a life with so much potential never exploited.

In all this is a well-written book as you would expect from Pullman. It is a fairly concise and easy read. But this book has neither the excitement and fast pace of previous books, nor the unexpected plot twists. At the same time, for me the book felt purposely provocative and left me with more questions than any enlightenment it offered.

Book Review: Margaret Atwood - The Penelopiad

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