God knows why men believe

Bryan Cheyette enjoys a matriarchal spin on the divine comedy of Genesis
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The Independent Culture

Only Human is a modern version of the story of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis, chapters 11 to 22) or, as they are known before God's Covenant, Abram and Sarai. Jenny Diski's last book, the remarkable Skating to Antarctica, was a paean of praise to whiteness, oneness and solipsism. No wonder she has chosen the Supreme Being as narrator in her eighth novel.

Only Human is a modern version of the story of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis, chapters 11 to 22) or, as they are known before God's Covenant, Abram and Sarai. Jenny Diski's last book, the remarkable Skating to Antarctica, was a paean of praise to whiteness, oneness and solipsism. No wonder she has chosen the Supreme Being as narrator in her eighth novel.

Novelists love to play God, which is why biblical stories have been a constant temptation through the past century. From Thomas Mann to Joseph Heller and Salman Rushdie to Howard Jacobson, mischievous authors have tried their utmost to wrest Holy Writ from the priests, imams and rabbis.

While Diski is not of the devil's party, she does have a party line. Her novel is firmly on the side of Sarai as an alternative to patriarchy. Diski is unashamedly matriarchal: Sarai, like her author, is the product of a dysfunctional family that shapes her pained outlook. Terah is her father (she does not know who her mother is) and Nahor, Abram and Haran her half-brothers. Before long, Haran, a despairing wild child, has committed suicide, and Sarai is married to Abram as a bemused 13-year-old bride.

For much of the first half there is very little to distinguish Sarai from Diski's previous wounded heroines. When Sarai is eight, her stepmother dies in childbirth along with her sister, who is stillborn. Instead of memories she has "gaps", and instead of emotions she is engulfed by "dark thoughts".

At this point, the reader could be forgiven for wondering why the novel, although pleasurably written, is subtitled a comedy. But the self-satisfied interventions of the jealous God-narrator offer light relief.

Diski has always understood profoundly both physical and mental anguish, and the ways in which the most perverted relationships somehow seem to work. Only Human is particularly good on Sarai's quasi-incestuous marriage to Abram. The transformation of Abram from sibling to husband is shrewdly handled, and the marriage shockingly normalised.

As Sarai matures, she fears that her "loving connections were human-made consolations" for emptiness. But, while she is able to live without the gods, Abram turns into a despairing existentialist. She regards his worship of an all-powerful creator as nothing short of madness. The second half of the book cleverly sets up a lover's troika between Abraham, God and Sarah.

Although Diski sticks closely to the biblical story - which is strange enough - she is rightly driven by the logic of her imagination. The abiding problem is that the Bible needs to be read in its own terms. By filling in the silences in Genesis, all Diski can do in the end is turn a weirdly compelling story into a modern morality tale.

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