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, who is initially non-believer of Jesus. Then he purportedly sees him on the road to Damascus. I had to read this section over as it wasn’t immediately clear what had happened. Paul (Saul) is set upon by bandits and ends up losing an eye and is severely injured. There was no reference to seeing Jesus in this section yet it becomes apparent that this momentous occasion was relayed to his followers as being the catalyst for his 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 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 longwinded 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 doesn’t prompt the same memory of what you learnt in Sunday school. I’d recommend this one with a caution. It’s probably not the best thing to read during a Covid-19 lockdown but if you’re interested in history after the death of Christ, then this is one to check out.