Paperback reviews: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Bhalla Strand, They Eat Horses Don’t They?, Clever Girl, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon


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The Independent Culture

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (Westbourne Press, £9.99)


The tracing of the “historical person that was Jesus of Nazareth”, as opposed to the individual religion has given us, is an exercise in tracing the fabrications. As Resa Aslan shows in his painstaking approach to the myths that surround the real-life individual, the trial in front of Pontius Pilate is a fabrication; the picture of Jesus as a peacemaker isn’t true either, and John the Baptist was a far bigger “star” at the time than the preacher born in a stable in Bethlehem when they first met (and the nativity story is almost certainly not true, either).

It’s understandable that Aslan’s book should have caused a huge storm, more so in the more evangelical US than it has here, where we seem readier to contemplate a historical Jesus separate from the Jesus that faith hands down. What is revealing though is how much more interesting the historical Jesus is. Aslan places him in the context of messianic figures that populated the region at the time, and also the militaristic atmosphere, with bandits operating against Rome, and uprisings aplenty. Jesus was crucified, Aslan argues, “because his messianic aspirations threatened the occupation of Palestine, and his zealoutry endangered the Temple authorities.” His execution, therefore, was a political one.

One of the places where the historical and the religious figures correspond is when it comes to miracles, not so much the performing of them as the granting of them free of charge. Aslan’s Jesus is an angry fighter of a man, an anti-capitalist and Jewish nationalist whose political edges are rubbed away by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and whose more radical tendencies have been downplayed by the Church ever since. Aslan isn’t the first to claim this for Jesus, but he is one of the more convincing, and more accessible, historians to do so.  

Bhalla Strand by Sarah Maine (Freight Books, £8.99)


There is an echo of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in Sarah Maine’s appealing debut novel, when human remains are found beneath the floorboards of a derelict mansion on a Scottish island. Bhalla Strand is the name of the house built for the artist Theodore Blake in the early part of the 20th century; Harriet Devereux is his modern-day great-niece who has inherited the place. She must decide whether to restore it or sell it, and finds the islander James Cameron utterly opposed to refurbishment. Parallel to the present-day is Blake’s story when he arrives at the house with his new, much younger bride, Beatrice, whom he has married on the rebound from a passionate affair in his youth. Their relationship is complicated by Cameron Forbes (the similarity in the names of both generations of men is intentional), who falls for Beatrice, who finds herself increasingly unhappy in her marriage. But one day Beatrice disappears – are the bones beneath the house hers? Maine writes well and clearly, and if her story is a little predictable in places, and a little too tidily completed, it is still a highly readable debut.     

They Eat Horses Don’t They? By Piu Marie Eatwell (Head of Zeus, £8.99)


Eatwell’s fun but informative cultural overview delights in exploding a few myths that the British in particular have about the French, but it’s also a timely answer back to the slew of studies promoting a French way of life, whether with reference to parenting, dressing or eating, as infinitely and always better. There are some surprises: despite their association with industrial strikes, fewer than ten per cent of French workers today belong to a union, and binge-drinking among the young has increased hugely. Fast food also accounts for seven out of ten meals eaten outside the home. It all suggests, perhaps regretfully, a more Anglo-American cultural experience than the typical French one we might assume. One observation escaped Eatwell, though: the number of e-books read by the French. On the Paris Metro, you will still find commuters reading print.  

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley (Vintage, £8.99)


For some reason, as intimate a tale as it is and as sympathetic a central character is Stella, Hadley’s account of a young girl’s growth to womanhood through the Fifties, Sixties and onwards failed somehow to touch me. Stella’s early life, first in impoverishment with just her mother, then later adjusting badly to a step-father by getting pregnant in her late teens by her rich, hippy boyfriend, is a highly sympathetic account, and her later relationship mistakes are also understandable ones. Perhaps that is the problem: there is so little here to object to in Stella, and even the regret that such a “clever girl” should have chosen the paths that she has, is mitigated by her lack of bitterness at the hand that fate has dealt her. Hadley is a deceptive writer, making hard things look easy, but here perhaps that deception is a little too smooth.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto (Penguin, £7.99)


Bhutto is an elegant, clear writer but this debut novel too often reads like personalised non-fiction. Three brothers are at the heart of it: ambitious Aman Erum, who abandons his childhood sweetheart for study in the States; Sikandar, the middle brother and a doctor whose wife, Mina, is coping badly with the loss of their child; and Hyat, the youngest, who has turned revolutionary, in cahoots with Aman Erum’s lost love, Samarra. In Samarra, we see what events might cause a young woman to turn to bombing, and in Mina we see the consequences of such violence. But these characters are all really ciphers who never feel like fully-fledged human beings, and with political points and historical analyses interjecting awkwardly and too often into the story, there’s a sense of the wrong emphases in the wrong places.