Sunday, 1 February 2015

Book #11 The Tongues Of Men Or Angels by Jonathan Trigell

The Tongues Of Men Or Angels

The Tongues Of Men Or Angels will be released on February 19th 2015, my thanks to the publisher Corsair for the complimentary copy.

The Tongues Of Men And Angels is Jonathan Trigell’s fourth novel, following Boy A, Cham, and Genus and I’ve spent 2 years waiting for it. In what is something of a departure for him we have moved from contemporary analysis of society from within the parameters of fiction to an analysis of an historical one. Specifically, the moment the line on the calendar of time blurs between BC and AD, the birth not of a man, but of a religion, how a man became a legend.

I would imagine that this book is really many different books depending on the position of belief in the reader, to come to this book having been raised in the faith, and particularly with a good working knowledge of the Bible would I imagine be an entirely different experience from somebody who had been brought up in a secular way, either with definitive lack of belief, or of a plain position of being undecided on the matter, the wisest of course knowing they don’t know.
I was brought up in the Christian faith but beyond childhood have always practiced discernment, critical thinking and an open mind. I do not have either a blind faith or an unquestioning one and sometimes struggle to define what it is I truly believe. I studied theology and as a consequence made certain departures from the faith of a child, but I suppose I’d come to a conclusion that if Christianity were a cake then the bits that were clearly untrue, myth or embellishment could be brushed off like unwanted hundreds and thousands and the legit part of the cake was still pretty tasty.    

It is impossible to really know what went on in those bygone days and that I suppose is the reason this book is marketed as a fiction, because Trigell’s guess is as good as anyone’s at the end of the day, but I read that sentence and it sounds dismissive and this is a book which is nigh on impossible to dismiss, mostly because sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re reading fiction at all but rather facts written in a creative way. It’s a bit like this book predates the New Testament and the New Testament as we know it today is its blockbuster movie adaptation “inspired by a true story”.

Prior to this novel I’d read Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ, and Colm Toibin’s The Testament Of Mary both of which irked me for an identical reason. The purpose of both those books appeared to be the author jumping out from behind a couch and shouting “SURPRISE! The Bible’s version of events and people probably isn’t what actually went down” only you aren’t remotely surprised and it's not news and the point is just beyond basic.

As a theologian at heart I was kind of yearning for someone to say something more intelligent and now someone has.

In the Tongues Of Men And Angels the version Jonathan Trigell posits here is a full scale assault, a veritable disembowelment of the Christian faith as we know it, if the true part of Christianity were a cake that cake would be burning in an oven in a house that had fallen down in an earthquake - GOOD LUCK FINDING YOUR CAKE. That is, not in terms of what is or isn't really true, but that which we can know for certain. It seriously impacted my religious beliefs for sure, and on that level could prove uncomfortable for some.

What he has done is a forensic examination of what is known of that era in terms of Judaism, local cultural customs, the way of life and contemporary history and takes the Bible stories contextualises them and goes not from all is true or some is true, or none is true, but “given what we do know amalgamated with what is said to be true what is MOST LIKELY to be true?

Be warned this is not a book which will have universal appeal if you like your Christianity to be fundamentalist, bigoted and unchallenged.

The format of the novel shifts in time; before the crucifixion, after the crucifixion and onto the birth of a church. At times these shifts were hard to rearrange into a linear chronology, but not in a way that really effected the ongoing plot.

Yeshua the Jew, son of Joseph, claims the line of David, he has some support, and he espouses a certain way of living, for his faith is an eschatological one. After his death his followers continue to live in the ways he taught, and it is essentially a small sect within Judaism known as The Way.

Enter Saul of Tarsus better known as Paul. Paul converts to The Way of The Nazerenes after a “vision”. There’s a problem. Paul is an arrogant man who wants to achieve greatness and Paul is a zealot. Paul never knew Yeshua, but believes he is special, more special indeed than the living men who knew him and loved him, who remember his words and his beliefs.

The Early Church stands in two camps, followers of a lifestyle, and a man who would turn flesh and bone into a deity, a man who will morph and manipulate The Way to “sell” it for ends that justify means, who won’t be told what to do or follow the rules and in spreading the cause to Europe will turn his back on Judaism for good.

With this novel Jonathan Trigell has attempted and, I would say successfully, to insert some intellectual honesty into the jumble sale Magic Jesus that we have today. There were some great moments in the prose reflective of what it is to be human, as Jesus was, essentially.

Prior to the book there were stories/aspects of the faith such as Christmas celebrations that I knew were completely groundless not merely standing on a shaky one but from a personal educational perspective there were moments that were simultaneously revelatory, and annoying, annoying solely in the sense that my mind was both blown and yet I felt an imbecile for never spotting it myself. 

There are minor imperfections, the use of Anglo-Saxon swearing is jarring, it somehow doesn’t flow, even though the book is (obviously) written in Modern English. Use of distinctly Northern colloquial words like ‘daft’ and ‘gubbins’ seem to feel out of place too, though I’ve since dated ‘daft’ back to the 14th Century. 

Occasionally, we slip into either repetitious prose, or the belabouring of a point.  The Irish joke ‘to get there you wouldn’t start from here‘ is used many times over the course of a few pages, and there is an exhaustive listing not once but twice of Yahweh’s Old Testament victories, which within its context feels like an excellent point, excessively made. There are other examples of this too.

To single these out in this way, feels slightly like nitpicking when placed within my opinion of the book overall which was, as has become customary with Jonathan Trigell’s work, very high. I have always held things which are clever in high esteem and there were times I felt it bordered on genius.     

For a book that decimates a belief system it ends on a very hopeful note, that perhaps if Jesus was never worthy of our worship, he remains worthy of our respect, righteous in all his ways.

In truth I feel like I’ve been waiting for someone to write this book for a lot longer than two years, and I’m pleased to say I feel like it was worth the wait. The Guardian gave this a bad review, ignore it.

Verdict 9/10

2015 Challenge : Given that this book got a scathing review in the Guardian this week, in terms of the challenge I'll call this my "book with bad reviews"

Book #10 We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves

My thanks to the publisher, Fourth Estate, for the complimentary copy

Eileen Tumilty is the child of proud Irish immigrants, a first generation Irish American, both parents struggle with alcoholism and she becomes a carer at a young age. Later, she marries Ed, but suddenly his behaviour becomes inexplicably erratic, leading them to a devastating diagnosis. 

This was a tough read for me. I felt an utter sense of detachment the vast majority of the time from any of the characters, I couldn't emotionally invest in anybody. Somehow the early years of Eileen Tumilty feel like a description of a person rather than a story with a character in it. I never really felt like I knew her. Even before Ed becomes ill, they don't have the greatest marriage, they did not seem particularly well suited and I didn't take to him as a character. Nor did I feel that I understood either of their behaviour in terms of their relationship with their son Connell.

At the books most dramatic moments, I failed to feel very moved at all, even though the story was sad, whereas normally, given the subject matter, and the events, I would have expected to cry.
Secondary characters didn't really come off the page either. I felt like characters such as Ruth, and Frank, and even cousin Pat, were not particularly fleshed out, and felt rather empty.

What is odd then, is that in spite of the fact that it's quite dry and certainly long, I did keep reading it, right through to the end, so something kept me reading. Because I never understood what made Eileen tick, I couldn't understand her decisions. Like choosing to pretty much force her declining husband out of the neighbourhood he knew for apparently racist reasons.

A puzzling experience, not a bad novel, certainly, but somehow a completely disengaging one.

Verdict : 6/10

2015 Challenge : A book set somewhere you want to visit (New York)