This is the story of Saul, later known as Paul who wrote the gospels and was credited with helping to establish the Christian church we know today. As you’d imagine this is an ambitious work and the research would have been mountainous.
It opens in 35 AD with Saul, initially a non-believer of Jesus. On the road to Damascus, Saul is set upon by bandits and is severely injured. I had to read this section over as it wasn’t immediately clear what had happened. There was no reference to meeting Jesus in this section yet it is apparent that this momentous occasion was relayed to his followers as being the catalyst for Saul’s change in faith. This was the first stumble for me and I reached for the internet to get greater clarity. Is the author indicating that it was just a knock on the head and the greatest moment of the ages could have been anything other than what the known story has hinged on? I wonder.
The book is divided into sections according to years and different characters point of view. Lydia’s story and her meeting with Paul was very interesting and the suppression and lives of women on every level was well told. I enjoyed the parts from Paul’s point of view which is given to us as a young man and then as an old one.
There’s a section about Timothy who is said to have been the scribe for Saul who was illiterate. The two are incredibly close. However, the narrative from Timothy’s point of view as an old man becomes quite repetitive and long-winded and seemed to slow down the pace of the story. Perhaps it’s just me but I found myself skipping these sections. We know that Timothy loves Paul and it’s reciprocated. Did they have a homosexual relationship? It’s insinuated and weaves its way through the book. Given that the author is gay, it makes for an interesting and believable interpretation.
What the author also does well is to put us right into the filth, the stench and violence of the times where poverty is rife and human life worth little. Some of it is hard to digest but the repetition of the images for me, became diluted as the story progressed. There is little light and shade despite the span of years covered. But Tsiolkas is a writer known for his raw and sometimes brutal portrayal of life and we’ve grown to expect that the language will be profane and the descriptions to be shocking.
Don’t be surprised if what you read isn’t what you remember from Sunday school. I’d recommend this one with a caution. It’s probably not the best thing to read during a Covid-19 lock-down but if you’re interested in history after the death of Christ, then this is one to check out.