A riveting, reverent imagining of the hidden years of the child Jesus.
Attacked by a vicious bully, seven-year-old Yeshua employs uncanny powers to drop his assailant onto the sand and then to bring him back to life. It’s the remarkable beginning of the 26th novel by an author whose pulpy vampire chronicles (Blood Canticle, 2003, etc.) hardly prepare us for a book so spiritually potent as this. Following Jesus and his family’s journey from Egyptian exile to their ancestral home, it recasts Bible stories (the Magi’s visit, the presentation at the temple) in the detailed context of Jewish rebellion against Herod Archelaus, the impious ruler of Israel. A cross between a historical novel and an update of Tolstoy’s The Gospels in Brief, it presents Jesus as nature mystic, healer, prophet and very much a real young boy. Essentially, it’s a mystery story, of the child grappling to understand his miraculous gifts and numinous birth. He animates clay pigeons, causes snowfall and dazzles his elders with unheard-of knowledge. Rice’s book is a triumph of tone—her prose lean, lyrical, vivid—and character: As he ponders his staggering responsibility, the boy is fully believable—and yet there’s something in his supernatural empathy and blazing intelligence that conveys the wondrousness of a boy like no other. Rice’s concluding Author’s Note traces the book’s genesis to her return to Catholicism in 1993, her voracious reading—a mountain of New Testament scholarship, the Apochrya, the ancient texts of Philo and Jospephus—and her passionate search for the Jesus of the Gospels. With this novel, she has indeed found a convincing version of him; this is fiction that transcends story and instead qualifies as an act of faith.
Joins Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Shusaku Endo’s A Life of Jesus as one of the bolder re-tellings.