A collection of stories inspired by the New Testament.
In Sveen’s first novel to be translated into English, New Testament figures—thieves, disciples, and the Son of God alike—walk, talk, breathe, and dream like living people. Sveen is a rising young star in his native Norway, and this collection of loosely linked stories requires a young star’s daring. Jesus is a real man here, making his way from village to village, Judas, Andrew, Simon Peter, and all the rest in tow, as the Roman “occupiers” flicker dangerously at their heels. The stories center on the broken and destitute: Anna, who is abused by man after man before she joins Jesus’ followers; Jacob, upon whom “evil had left its mark”—a debilitating stutter; Sarah, Jacob’s mother, who has died and narrates from beyond her life. There are others: a band of murderous thieves, a clique of Roman soldiers. Characters recur in multiple stories, with small changes in viewpoint, setting, and circumstance. For the most part, Sveen’s prose is clear; he doesn’t try to imitate the archaisms of an ancient language. As a matter of fact, he occasionally goes too far in the other direction, opting for phrases too modern for their setting here: Jacob, his father explains, “grew on me.” Someone else says, “pull yourself together.” Whether these idioms, or anachronisms, can be attributed to Sveen himself or to his translator, Puzey, isn’t clear. Either way, they speak to a larger flaw with Sveen’s book, and that is its overall intention. Sveen doesn’t seem particularly interested in the historical figures who appear in the New Testament, and though he cloaks his stories in a certain mysticism, he doesn’t seem entirely committed to their poetic possibilities, either. He’s stuck awkwardly in the middle, and his stories, therefore, ultimately fail to satisfy.
By turns gritty and vague, Sveen’s stories seem undecided, wavering in both tone and intention.