Sunday, March 16, 2008

Publishers expect great things of Geraldine Brooks and Anne Rice. Ms. Brooks, a reporter and novelist, covered the war in Bosnia for the Wall Street Journal and is the author most recently of “March,” a Pulitzer Prize winner that was widely admired for its lean, imaginative recreation of the Civil War experience of Jo March’s father from “Little Women.”

Anne Rice is one of the best-selling writers in modern American history, the author of 20 novels (or even more if you count the self-described “adult” fiction and erotica she writes under pseudonyms). For her new novel, Knopf’s initial printing is 400,000 copies.

Ms. Rice’s book is a departure from the horror and vampire stories on which her tremendous popularity was built. Christ the Lord, the Road to Cana (Knopf, $25.95, 241 pages) is a second installment in a projected three-volume novel based on the life of Jesus.

“Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt,” presented Jesus as a seven-year-old and was selected by the Christian Website as one of the best books of 2005. Ms. Rice told an interviewer that writing the life of Christ was “the biggest adventure of my life.” It follows the religious conversion she experienced in 1996.

As presented in “The Road to Cana” Jesus is very like the figure a reader might remember from Sunday school — gentle, thoughtful, with (as he sees when he recognizes the Devil’s physical resemblance to him) hair that is “long and lustrous, a deep rich brown” and “soft” eyes. He is a hard worker, a dutiful son, and a considerate brother.

As the novel begins, this Jesus wrestles with his extraordinary identity; he is a young man struggling with “a terrible restlessness, a sense … that all that happened around me was somehow a sign to me.” He must convince his mother and brothers that, despite his powerful attraction to her, he will never marry his lovely kinswoman Avigail.

He considers the drought afflicting Galilee and must decide when and how to pray for rain to end it. And then, having traveled to the Jordan river to see his cousin, John ben Zechariah, having been baptized by him in the river and, as he emerged from the water, heard the sound of beating wings and a voice proclaiming him to be the beloved son, Jesus must retreat to solitude in the desert and an encounter with the luxuriously dressed stranger who is so like him in appearance but who Jesus recognizes as Satan, Beelzebub and, finally, “the lie.”

This last name so enrages the Devil that it drives him away and Jesus returns to his community in time for Avigail’s wedding in Cana, where he makes water into wine and begins gathering followers to him.

Ms. Rice’s narrative is faithful to the scant Biblical accounts of the events of this part of Jesus’ life but fleshes out the portrait of Jesus with theatrical emotionalism. Her Jesus is a man who cries often, trembling and collapsing when renouncing Avigail, weeping when he learns of Joseph’s death, sobbing as he embraces his divine identity in the desert.

Likewise, her Devil, lacking the smug assurance that makes C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape so seductive, shakes his fist at Jesus, and claps his hands over his ears to avoid hearing what he has to say. He, too, sobs and cries.

Despite this extravagant emotion and moments of genuine tension when Jesus and his relatives gather to discuss their outrage at the posting of Roman ensigns in Jerusalem, Ms. Rice’s account of Jesus’ life only fleetingly comes alive. Reaching for Biblical solemnity, she uses stilted words and constructions.

Worse, her prose is florid and trite. “I could scarce believe these words were meant for me,” Jesus thinks. Avigail experiences “a darkling understanding that muted her easy laughter and her once frequent little songs.” Having renounced Avigail, Jesus reflects, “I thought my heart would stop.”

At a family celebration, children were in “a paroxysm of delight.” Seeing his cousin John at the River Jordan, Jesus feels, “My heart was cold and small. But then it grew warmer and I felt it beating.” Emerging from his baptism, he remembers later that he felt a “faint near-delicious sizzling sensation.”

At the end, the Devil is “near petrified with fury.” Occasionally, the narrative is simply hard to follow, as when the Devil asks Jesus, “do you really mean to frighten them and leave them far for the worse that another prophet has come cursing and denouncing and proclaiming what will never come to pass?”

Will anything close to half a million readers pay $24 to read the life of Christ recounted this way? It will be interesting to see.


Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book (Viking $25.95, 368 pages) is inspired by a fascinating true story, the rescue from destruction in the shelling of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war of a 500-year-old manuscript, an ancient Haggadah that had once before been dramatically saved when, under the very eyes of the Nazis, a Muslim scholar smuggled it out of Sarajevo’s National Museum and hid it in the countryside for the duration of the war.

Building on these two episodes and incorporating a wealth of colorful historical detail, Ms. Brooks imagines the manuscript’s life, working backwards from Sarajevo, to Vienna, Venice, Tarragona and, finally, to Seville, where it was created in 1480.

She creates a host of characters — Zahra, a Muslim girl kidnapped from North Africa to Spain who, disguised as a boy, learns to paint and creates the manuscript’s vibrant images; Ruti, a Spanish Jew and secret student of the Kaballah, whose father copies the Haggadah’s text and whose brother is brutalized by the Inquisition for being a Jewish convert to Christianity; Vistorini, the Venetian priest who must enforce papal orders to burn Jewish books but who, in anguish over his own hidden Jewish heritage, spares the Haggadah; Lola, the brave Communist partisan taken in by the Albanian Muslim who hides the manuscript during the second world war; Dr. Ozren Karaman, head librarian of the Bosnian National Museum, a Muslim, traumatized by the murder of his wife and infant daughter during the war in Sarajevo, who again hides the Haggadah.

Holding all this together is the story of Hannah Heath, an unsentimental young Australian book conservator hired by the United Nations to authenticate the manuscript. Hannah’s narration, enlivened by colorful Australian slang (“to woop woop,” “prats,”), suggests that the Haggadah carries a mysterious message that she must unravel.

In one of its illuminations, the manuscript bears an image of a dark-skinned woman dressed in a saffron robe sitting at the Seder table but scholars have been unable to agree who she is. The minute clues Hannah finds in the manuscript — a cat hair, salt crystals, an insect wing, a stain that could be either wine or blood — lead backwards into revelations of the manuscript’s history that alternate with her discoveries about her own family heritage as she travels from Bosnia to Boston to the Australian Outback.

But the sense of mystery, like much else in this book, feels contrived (and, worse, calls to mind the overwrought plot of “The Da Vinci Code.”). It does not build and, by the time we finally get to them, the revelations at the heart of the story feel unremarkable. As does the central point the author returns to multiple times — “that diverse cultures influence and enrich each other.” Well, yes.

“The People of the Book” of Ms. Brooks’ title are the individuals who, over centuries, have created and cared for a particular volume. They are also, of course, adherents of the three great monotheistic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — whose interaction has created much conflict and drama over many centuries.

At the conclusion of this vast novel, its main characters conclude that “to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.” Which, of course, human beings being what they are, is the heart of the problem.

But that is a subject for another book. In the meantime, “The People of the Book,” like “Christ the Lord, the Road to Cana,” would seem to indicate that publishers, at least, are people of great faith.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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