Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, by Anne Rice

Gospels of family and faith
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The Independent Culture

Not so much Queen of the Damned as King of the Saved. Anne Rice, vampire chronicler and author of Memnoch the Devil and The Witching Hour, has published an unlikely new novel: a lush account of the childhood of Jesus. A helpful blurb makes the link between Rice's more usual heroes - the undead in particular and the elegantly doomed in general - and the Christian saviour. "He is the supreme supernatural hero," it reads, "the ultimate outsider and the greatest immortal of them all."

This promises to be theology with a twist - perhaps a not-so-good book. Christ the Lord begins teasingly enough. On the first page, the seven-year-old Jesus strikes dead another boy, a bully. Two pages later, we're told how Jesus once fashioned clay sparrows - on the Sabbath, no less - then clapped his hands and made them fly away. And at the end of the first chapter, Jesus considerately resurrects his playground rival.

These episodes are not the product of Rice's imagination; they're drawn from the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Flirting with apocryphal texts, those rejected by the Church at the great councils of its early history, has been trendy since Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code pinned together some dodgy notions about Mary Magdalen into a theory many enthusiasts regard as literally the gospel truth.

But Rice has done her homework - 10 years of it, according to the essay-length author's note. She also reveals that Christ the Lord was inspired by the renewal of her own Catholic faith late in life after decades of contentedly sceptical marriage to a fervently atheist husband. It makes sense. Only a lapsed Catholic, you feel, could have created the glamorous moral twilight of Rice's vampire world.

Similarly, only someone in the first flush of faith - perhaps all the more ardent for being regained - could have created this surprisingly saccharine book. Because readers wanting more of the same after that first chapter will be disappointed. Jesus grows up in an idyllic extended family.

Rice obsessively tells us who's holding the baby: "Cleopas now had Little Symeon in his arms so he could see, and Little Salome was holding Baby Esther... and Aunt Mary was holding up Joses and Alphaeus had my cousin Little James." The air is deliciously scented with baking bread, bubbling stew, cut grass, blossom, ripe figs, and everyone washes constantly. The trilingual family possesses a small library.

Joseph is no humble carpenter but a skilled craftsman - a Levantine Linley - and Mary is as meek and mild as even the Pope could wish. In the Church of Rice, all the stained-glass windows are rose-tinted.

Yet it's hard not to like the Jesus who narrates this book. A precocious, tender child, his attempt to unravel the mysteries surrounding his birth and his clan's subsequent flight to Egypt are at the heart of the story. On one level, this is a coming-of- age tale about a child exploring the things left unsaid in family life, and on that level it succeeds - not least because we're in on the secret too, of the angel-heralded birth and the "massacre of the innocents" that followed.

The story ends - surely, for once, no reviewer need worry about giving away the ending - with Jesus learning the shocking answers from the teachers at the Temple in Jerusalem. As luck (or perhaps divine providence) would have it, another new retelling of the life of Christ, Walter Wangerin's Jesus, takes up the story at that very point.

Wangerin is an old hand at this sort of thing. He's well known in the US for The Book of God, a behemoth novelisation of the Bible. Expect a severe continuity jump if you read Jesus back-to-back with Rice's book, though.

Wangerin's Holy Family couldn't be more different. Joseph is an amiable lummox, Mary a sharp-tongued tomboy having a permanent bad hair day. At times, she's so like Terry Jones's dragged-up matriarch in Monty Python's The Life of Brian you expect her to fling open the shutters and screech, "He is the Messiah, now bugger off!"

Jesus clips along engagingly. Its author is especially good at context, linking Jesus's parables to the trades and geography of Galilee and Judea. A biblical lyricism enriches his writing - though colloquialisms sometimes strike a false note. It's hard to imagine the powerful priestly council, the Sanhedrin, being brought to heel by a cry of "Whoa! Whoa!"

Orthodoxy reigns. Yet where Jesus does fill in the gaps of the gospel story, it does so persuasively. Judas addresses Jesus with a "yessir!", like an over-eager marine recruit. This grates, but makes its point - this Judas is a teenager, the baby of the apostolic bunch, motivated by a young man's shallow dreams of glory. It's a novel interpretation of the gospel, yet you nod along in agreement.

That goes for Wangerin's messiah, too. He displays enough humour to be human, enough glory to be God. If not how it was, this is how it could have been.

It's hard to know whether either Wangerin or Rice were influenced by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, with its tortured saviour. Certainly, their publishers will hope the two books get a lift from fans of the movie. But both authors succeed where the film-maker failed, giving us a Son of God who, for all his miraculous powers, is in every sense down-to-earth.

Victoria James works for Channel 4 News; her book 'Haiku Inspiration' is out from Duncan Baird in January