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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 August 2012
In "The Liars' Gospel", Naomi Alderman gives the perspective of four people on the recent death of a Jewish man named Yehoshuah, who is more commonly known these days by the anglicized name of Jesus. These perspectives include Miryam (Mary), the teacher's mother, Iehuda of Qeriot (Judas Iscariot), a one time follower of the man, Caiaphas, the High Priest of the great Temple in Jerusalem and finally Bar-Avo, Barabbas, a rebel who is determined to bring down the occupying Roman presence. What makes this such a remarkable book is the sheer visceral nature of the story telling. Each story is vividly told, and Alderman evokes the time and place to such a level that you half expect to have developed a sun tan while reading the book.

Alderman has clearly researched the subject extensively, but she is never "preachy" (an unfortunate choice of words, I acknowledge) on the learning. Rather, it informs the action in a way that is both entertaining and informative. On top of this she adds a huge dose of the human factor that ensures that this is never a dry read. It touches on heavy issues, like faith and the intrinsic relationship between organized religion and politics but with a lightness of touch that never sacrifices entertainment for her message.

Alderman catches the grief of the mother combined with anger beautifully. It's both moving and thoughtful. In the telling of Iehuda's story too, she captures the delicate balance of gaining and loss of faith and the pressures of self interest. Caiaphas too is torn between the demands of the faith he represents and the protection of his people and way of life which involves cooperating with the occupying Roman army. Bar-Avo has no such interest in working with the hated Romans. He's a rebel with a cause.

The stories are full of friendship, betrayal, massacres, riots, violence and tyranny. It's no mean achievement to bring something new and fresh to such an old and known story, but Alderman does this throughout. It's an old story but the issues remain today, and like the best historical fiction, it shines a light on the present by looking to the past. By emphasising personal and very human perspectives on events, she is able to come at the story from a fresh perspective.

Tackling religious subjects is always likely to offend some readers. It's certainly true that in some cultures such a story would be at very least frowned upon and probably banned. God comes out reasonably well, but organized religion and Yehoshuah perhaps less well. As you might gather from the book's title, Alderman suggests that the story of Jesus as we have it is based at least on some elements of lies and propaganda by many. She doesn't baulk at emphasising the view that the organized Christian religion is at least in part a political construct in its historical origin.

But while the subject matter may be contentious to some, it would be wrong to suggest this is some heavy message-laden narrative. It is first and foremost an exciting, entertaining and enthralling read. All religion has a strong element of story-telling associated with it - and this is story telling of the very highest order. It deserves to be a huge success and is certainly one of my "books of the year". And that's no lie.
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on 1 September 2012
Most writers spend their entire careers trying to write a book as moving, as thought-provoking and as wise as `The Liars' Gospel'. Nearly all fail.

That Naomi Alderman has managed it by only her third novel is a minor wonder.

The book re-tells the story of Jesus from the perspective of four people who met him, but it does so much more. It tells the story of Rome's subjugation of the Jewish people. It shows how eye-witness accounts become stories, stories become myths, myths become accepted truths, and accepted truths change the world. And it shows how when leaders begin to believe in the myths that surround them it eventually destroys them and those they lead.

`The Liars' Gospel' is a novel of both epic scale and deep personal insight. It is exciting, funny, mournful, provocative, and beautifully written. Most importantly, this is not just a novel for Jews, Christians or fans of historical fiction. The events described have shaped the modern world, and this novel offers a different way of understanding how we got to where we are today, and there are clear parallels implied between then and now. Alderman is too skilful to write a polemic, understanding only too well that history is too complicated for shallow consideration, that all sides have motivations however misguided they may be. This is a novel that lives and breathes through characterisation and the quality of its prose, not by heavy-handedly hammering home a `message'.

A major work by a novelist who is fast becoming one of our most essential writers. If there's been a better book released in 2012 I have yet to read it. Sadly, it is almost certainly too good to win the Booker.
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on 31 October 2012
The Christian Church has always wrestled with the challenge of its belief that Jesus is both God and human being. Although I consider myself to be an orthodox Christian I sometimes feel that the Church has overemphasised divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity. This new novel provides an important corrective and approaches the historical figure of Jesus from the viewpoint of four important characters in his story - his mother Mary, his disciple Judas, the High Priest Caiphas and the freedom fighter Barabbas. In writing her third novel, Naomi Alderman has skilfully used both the gospel narratives and the writings of first century historian such as Josephus to retell the story of the Jewish rabbi from Nazareth. Particularly clever was the novelist's treatment of the Barabbas story. Although the novel's ironic title was sensationalist, her treatment of the figure of Jesus was reverent. How refreshing for a writer to treat Jesus as a human being who, although he was passionate in his belief in the imminent Reign of God also had time to laugh with his friends. I was so engrossed by the book, I read it in one sitting and then ordered Ms Alderman's second novel, 'The Lessons' which I also thoroughly enjoyed.
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`She thinks of how all the stories she has ever heard must have come to be. There are only three ways: either they were true, or someone was mistaken, or someone lied.'

There have been many re-tellings of the gospels: this is a postmodern one that vividly displays the instability and contingency of the stories - all stories - which have come to be known as the new testament. Alderman has constructed a vivid set of narratives, four to mirror those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that re-tell the central story of Christianity, but from varying and diffuse perspectives.

For Miryam (Mary), her son Yehoshuah was `a traitor, a rabble-leader, a rebel, a liar and a pretender to the throne' - but for all her anger, she has never overcome her pain at his abandonment of his family. For Iehuda from Qeriot (Judas Iscariot) he was something quite different; and for Bar-Avo (Barabbas) the story of Jesus is almost a footnote in a tale of political struggle against Roman imperialism.

As each of them, and Caiaphas, the high-priest of the temple of Jerusalem, continues to tell stories about the man they knew and the events they participated in, we see them weaving strands that are sometimes self-consciously false but will come to take their place in the bible - as one of our characters says, `someone sold them out for a handful of silver' but it's not, in this case, Iehuda.

Alderman's book is a very intelligent engagement with the process of myth-making and she draws attention, towards the end, to the way in which the story of Jesus draws on Greek, Roman and eastern myths and stories: `he became, like Caesar, the son of a god. Like the god Tammuz, or the god Ba'al, or the god Orpheus, it was said he died and rose again. Like Perseus, he was born of a woman who had never known a man.' And yet, for all this, the book itself does not preclude the possibility of the miraculous, for those who want to read the story in that way.

A masterful tale of faith and politics, this is also a vivid story of life in Jerusalem at the turn of the first millennium.
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on 5 July 2013
"And in the midst of all that, one preacher by the name of Jesus died. And either something miraculous happened or someone lied."

This is not the story of Yehoshuah (Jesus)but of the way his existence affected those around him. It is an often bloody tale of a people under Roman occupation, told from the perspectives of Miryam (his mother), Iehuda (a follower), Caiaphas (High Priest of Jerusalem) and Bar-Avo (rebel and murderer).

The first half of the book is sublime. Miriam's feelings of betrayal, disappointment and loss in relation to her eldest son, and the strong love she had for him despite all these things, ring so true.

My favourite "chapter" is that of Iehuda. A man who loses faith, finds it again in Yehoshuah and then loses it again when he feels that Yehoshuah is allowing himself to become the centre of things and more important than his message and his people.

"Losing one's faith is so very like gaining it. There is the same joy, the same terror, the same annihilation of self in the ecstasy of understanding. There is the same fear that it will not hold, the same wild hope that, this time, it will. One has to lose one's faith many times before one begins to lose faith in faith itself."

After this it becomes more about a city under occupation and the clash between Rome and Jerusalem. It is no less compelling and well-written, but did not appeal to me as much as the first two chapters. However, I still found myself unwilling to put it down, even for a moment
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on 8 November 2012
This was not a book that I would normally have picked up but I am very glad I did. As historical fiction it was extremely well researched and very well written. Viewing Christ's life from four different perspectives provided a fascinating depth to the story and really did stimulate my thinking about a tale that I thought I knew very well. A very good read.
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on 3 October 2012
Much has been made of the traffic jam of big name novelists publishing new work this autumn. Naomi Alderman doesn't have the rep that Self, Amis, McEwan, et al have ... or for that matter Rose Tremain. But Liar's Gospel needs to be taken as seriously as any of the books that are being published by those with the hype machine behind them.

This re-telling from 4 different perspectives of the story of Yehoshua (Jesus) is one of the most audacious pieces of historical recreation published in recent years. Jesus was a Jew who lived in a time of rebellion and messianic fervour. Alderman's understanding of the mindset of Jews in extremis is extraordinary but she also understands the way Jewish religious practice shapes that mindset. Her ability to take the most familiar of stories and re-imagine it in its setting and find resonance for our time in the politics of Israel/Palestine is also remarkable.

Liar's Gospel can be ranked with Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and A Place of Greater Safety. Like Mantel's work, every page Alderman writes has something on it that makes you gasp and shake your head with wonder at literary mastery.

If you are looking at this little reader review you are already thinking of buying the book. Don't wait. Just do it.
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on 14 December 2013
A very different look at the familiar story of Jesus. It views events around the life of Jesus from the point of view of people like Mary, Barabbas, Judas and Caiaphas and tries to show how they were not the maligned or saintly characters that tradition would have us believe but people who, although far from perfect, responded to events with a range of motives and emotions.
Written by an Orthodox Jew it is not a Christian perspective on Jesus' life (the title is a clue!) and anyone who come to this book from a fundamentalist background will probably be horrified by the content but it is an attempt to ground the characters in a social, political and domestic context that makes them explicable, if not always sympathetic.
Difficult to stop reading once you start, visceral and provocative.
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on 8 September 2013
I thought I was going to like this - but I REALLY liked it! A piece of historical fiction set in the time of Roman occupied Judea, early in the first century CE. Before the first of four parts begin there is an introduction that perfectly sets the tone for much of what lies ahead: The ritual sacrifice of a lamb in the Jerusalem temple (that's THE Temple of course, Herod the Great's rebuilt version of King Solomon's earlier destroyed Temple) is accounted for in considerable detail. A twice daily performed ceremony of utmost importance in the Judean (or 'Jewish') religion, the description is at once something that made this reader feel simultaneously queasy and awe-inspired. The slaughter is given the context of the daily ceremonial life of the Temple, and the various sacrificial offerings large and small made by the faithful visiting pilgrims rich and poor alike.

Then the Romans arrive...General Pompey's forces occupy Jerusalem and eventually take control of the Temple. Under his command the conquering army is obviously tough, but actually is reasonably considered and fair. His orders are to not desecrate the temple. The Roman Empire permits the occupied Judeans to carry on with the worship of their God Yahweh.

With this setup complete the story begins. It is broken into four parts - each telling a story from the point of view of (in order) - Miryam (Mary), a mother in Nazareth whose eldest son Yehoshua (Jesus) was crucified in Jerusalem a year earlier; Yehuda Ish-Karyot {man of Kariot} (Judas Iscariot), a former disciple of the same Yehoshua, who was thought to be dead, but is actually living as a reinvented and Romanised gentleman in the regional port town Caesaria; Caiaphas, the Cohen HaGadol or High Priest of the Temple; and finally Bar-Avo (Barabbas), an anti-Roman rebel leader.

Alderman does a superb job at convincingly portraying 1st century life in Roman Israel as it really might have been. The sights, sounds and smells of various markets, villages, bath-houses, and homes of the rich and poor, Roman and Jew, really come across. The food and drink is lavishly accounted for - a good selection of olives, fresh figs, white cheeses and a nice glass of wine will go well with this book!


Gideon, a youth escaped from an anti-Roman riot in Jaffa, and one who it turns out both knew and followed the crucified teacher Yehoshua, turns up frost-bitten and nearly dead one winter up in the high hills of Galilee that surround Nazareth. Once nursed back to health he becomes a goat herd and domestic help in Miryam's household. We learn that her husband Yosef is estranged. The Romans are hot on the trail and come looking for the escaped one from Jaffa, while Miryam risks the whole village's safety by uncharacteristically lying about how long Gideon's been staying with them. At first Miryam is resentful of the fact that this boy seems to have known her son in a way that she could not in the last year or two of his life, (since when Yehoshua had stopped coming home) and doesn't really want a daily reminder that he went off the rails so to speak and was killed in punishment by the Romans. But at the same time she is glad to have someone in the home who is interested in her recollections of her departed son as a boy. Gideon's stated love for her son's teachings somehow seem to keep his memory alive for her.

Yehuda Ish-Kariot is portrayed as a very complex and sensitive man, and one who thinks quite deeply. Living as an 'enslaved guest' in the home of a wealthy Roman citizen and merchant, Yehuda's party-piece, at his host's behest, is to "tell that funny story of the one in Jerusalem who thought he was the King". As with Conrad's Marlowe, Alderman has her character tell the story as a sequence of past events. Yehuda tells how much he loved his dearly departed wife, and that he almost didn't recover from her sudden death. Once he has encountered a small group of men banded together on the road in the company of their Nazarene teacher, he throws his lot in with them and becomes an especially passionate believer in his ministry. As the group grew and attracted increasing attention, Yehuda finds himself somewhat at odds with Yehoshua's seemingly carefree attitude to those proclaiming him the 'Annointed One', the Messiah.

The episode of Lazarus' sister Mary annointing Jesus' feet with a pint of very expensive spikenard oil (John 12:1-10), just before the Passover in Bethany, is reworked by Alderman with considerable verve. (The village where she has it happen is called Beit-Ani {in Hebrew the 'house' or 'place of the poor'} and it is Yehoshua's head which is annointed. Alderman seems to loosely base her retold parables on a sort of amalgam of the different canonic gospels familiar to many.) Yehuda doesn't understand why such an expensive ointment (worth a labourer's annual wage) wasn't sold to feed the poor, and doesn't understand his teacher's vague response. He becomes increasingly disillusioned...

Caiaphas' story is interesting in that it is told in almost complete isolation from the story of Jesus. We learn of the daily comings and goings of a privileged and powerful family. The High Priest is in effect the 'spiritual leader' of the local Jewish population, and has a pseudo-political role. As such, it is fascinating to see the portrayal of the relationship between the occupied and the occupier. (I couldn't help but draw my own clumsy analogy with the ongoing situation in modern Israel regarding the 'autonomous' Palestine Authority... but that's another conversation for another day.) His concerns are primarily with the purity of his own soul (and by extension the soul of the nation as a whole) - which extends to the purity of his wife's soul - as every year on the holy Day of Atonement - Yom Kippur - he must proffer himself before God in the Temple's inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies. This is where God lives and only the High Priest must ever step foot there, and only ever on that day. A Rope will be tied to his ankle so that he may be pulled out should the Lord smite him there and then as has happened before. Understandably he is preoccupied with his own suspicions of his wife's infidelity as it can truly be a matter of life and death.

The events surrounding the arrest and crucifixion of a strange and apparently rabble-rousing teacher from Galilee are told from Caiaphas' perspective almost as an aside in his ongoing struggle with the Roman Prefect Pilate over the supply of Temple monies for civic projects - forbidden by Jewish law. There is the disturbing episode of a mob disrupting the Temple routine one year in the days before Passover, upsetting the tables and assaulting the money-changers... Nevertheless, the simmering atmosphere of pending rebellion, disorder and faithlessness is brewing all the time.

Which leads the story of The Liars' Gospel nicely to Bar-Avo's tale. His name (not his given name) means "His Father's Son" in Hebrew, and we learn why that is so, and why his actual name is never used. Alderman tells Barabbas' story almost as though he were Mario Puzo's young Vito Corleone on his way up through the ranks of hoodlums and made men who run the black markets and smuggle the weapons around Jerusalem under the eyes of the Roman garrison. There are several episodes of {graphically} violent revolt which lead to Bar-Avo's arrest and his subsequent encounter with Yehoshua/Jesus we're familiar with. His place on the Roman cross is taken by the 'King of the Jews' who doesn't appear to have as many friends in town as the king of the wise guys... A long career in increasingly political anti-Imperialist rebellion unfolds for Bar-Avo, yet somehow he prospers, seeming to live a charmed life. He finds himself on occasion thinking back to his moments in the same cell beneath the Prefect's house when he talked with the Nazarene about God and faith, and is thankful that it was not he who died on the cross that Passover.

I'd be giving this the full five stars if it wasn't for the slightly heavy-handed way that the epilogue explains why it is that the gospel may well be the liars' gospel of the title. I thought it would've been wiser to leave the reader to decide for themselves. On the whole though, this was a very believable and enjoyable imagined story of some of the major figures in Jesus' days, and how we should always be wary of history's perspectives. Recommended.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 20 April 2013
"Every story could be told in four different ways, or forty or forty thousand."

Here is the story, that we think we all know so well already, told to us again by four people who knew it firsthand, at least as envisaged by the author. It's a year now since Yehoshuah died, and four people whose lives have been impacted beyond recall by him tell their stories. We read of Miryam, wife of Yosef; Iehuda of Qeriot, a follower of Yehoshuah; Caiaphas, the High Priest of the great Temple in Jerusalem; Bar-Avo, a rebel and a murderer. Life goes on around the characters - Roman soldiers try to keep the peace, market sellers trade their wares, sheep are herded in the hills, people worship their own gods

Miryam, torn between her love and frustration as a mother lies to Gidon; Iehuda, torn between his God and the man who he thought gave him the `truth' finds it harder to tell the truth from lies; Caiaphas, torn between protecting his people and appeasing Rome lies so well he doesn't even notice he's doing it; Bar-Avo, torn between peace and war lies to save his life at the cost of another's and finds himself Barabbas once again. And in the end, the circle comes around again.

The story itself is mesmerising, but it's lifted beyond that by the language. The daily routines, the wash of humanity going about their business in Jerusalem and the wider Judaea, the personalities who populate such a hub of fierce pride all bring the places and the times to life. I noticed too that each of the four stories has been given exactly the same amount of space in the book; one is no more important than the other, but while we read of them, we see the place where Yehoshuah touched each and every one of them and how it impacted, even indirectly on the remainder of their lives.

I quite deliberately did not read other reviews of the book until after I had read it. I did not want my experience of the work to be tinged by a `Christian' slant or otherwise. I wanted to approach the book as a novel outside religion, which seems strange considering the key figure who ties all the characters together. But for me I found that allowed me to absorb this as a novel about people, not religion. This is wonderful stuff; a book that stands above and beyond as a story in a time and a place about people. People who we glimpse only briefly but who we find ourselves wondering about long after the last page has been turned.
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