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Gospel: Rumours of love, by Simon Parke

07 May 2021

Peggy Woodford considers a contemporary novel about the life of Jesus

THE AUTHOR’S introductory statement is a crucial guide to his novel:

It is not to be doubted a man
   called Jesus lived and died
The more interesting question is
   whether he died and lived
It is not the purpose of fiction to
    provide the answers
Only to awaken possibilities from
   their slumbers
       As Picasso reminds us,
“Art is a lie that makes us realise
    the truth.”

THE novel Gospel: Rumours of love (Features, 22 January, 1 April; Letters, 16 April) is set in first-century Palestine, a country “glued together by hate” — hatred of the Roman invaders and of the colluding Jewish authorities. Three voices tell the story of Jesus’s life on earth: Yeshua (Jesus), Miriam (an invented follower of Yeshua), and Mary. The background of people and places is deeply familiar to all who know the New Testament, but Simon Parke evokes them so vividly that they become fresh and surprising.

In fact, the whole novel is full of surprises that turn the familiar narrative on its head: perhaps the greatest is that Yeshua didn’t know Mary was his mother. He has only heard her described as “the whore of Nazareth” because she bore a baby out of wedlock.

I could quote many more examples, but here is the Bethlehem manger scene, re-visited by Yeshua: “‘I see the rough door to the stable beyond, and by the door . . . a manger . . . wood kicked and licked by cattle, butted and battered, but standing strong and a safe holding for hay. . . was this my starting out place?’

“He falls to his knees and weeps, and then as he finally stands up and leaves, starts laughing.”

It is the laughter that is so surprising; and yet Parkes makes it feel absolutely right in its context. He interprets, adds to, illuminates, and sometimes ignores the narratives laid out in the four great biblical Gospels. Gospel: Rumours of love is a fascinating, moving, and disconcerting novel, and the title itself has its own message: the origins of the word “gospel” itself come from the Old English god spell, meaning “good news”.

Peggy Woodford is a novelist.

Gospel: Rumours of love
Simon Parke
White Crow Books £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80

Listen to an interview with Simon Parke on a recent episode of the Church Times Podcast.

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