Christ the Lord by Anne Rice

(Chatto & Windus £17.99)

DAILY MAIL        22 March 2008

This is the most startling literary reincarnation of recent years.  In 2005, Anne Rice, internationally renowned author of The Vampire Chronicles, published the first in a series of novels on the life of Christ.   Judging by the initial volumes, Out of Egypt and The Road to Cana, it is both a spiritual and an imaginative triumph.

There have been hundreds of fictional versions of what Hollywood once called ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’, ranging from the complex literary and theological re-workings of Nobel laureates, Nikos Kazantzakis and Jose Saramago, to the trashy hagiographies of America’s Baptist presses.

Rice’s masterstroke is to inhabit Christ’s consciousness in a first-person narrative.  In Out Of Egypt she gave us the seven year old Jesus returning to the Holy Land from exile in Alexandria.  In The Road to Cana she gives us the thirty year-old Yeshua (he now speaks Aramaic) living in Nazareth with his extended family:  parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and half-brother James.

Rice’s Yeshua is still feeling his way to a full understanding of his divinity.  In the previous novel he learnt the story of the Nativity from both James and Mary and discovered the powers that enabled him to resurrect a boy he had unwittingly cursed and to restore the sight of a blind man.

Here he embarks on his ministry of healing, casting the evil spirits out of Mary Magdalene who, in a powerful pre-Gospel appearance, is not the harlot of misogynistic Church tradition but a rich widow driven insane by the deaths of her husband and sons.

In the course of the novel, Yeshua is baptised by John the Baptist, tempted by Satan and summons the first apostles, all of which episodes are simply and authoritatively rendered in Rice’s lucid prose.  Even more powerful are Rice’s own inventions such as Yeshua’s painful acceptance that he will never know sexual love after renouncing the beautiful Avigail in favour of his kinsman, Reuben.  Their subsequent wedding, at which Yeshua performs the first recorded miracle, changing the water into wine, provides a fitting climax to the book.

It will come as no surprise to readers of Rice’s earlier work that she has such a sure grasp of period detail and, a few passages of creaky dialogue apart, succeeds in creating both a vibrant and convincing historical world.  What is more remarkable is that she combines this with a very modern, post-Enlightenment understanding of Christ.  It is no accident that the novel opens with a horrific scene of two adolescent boys being stoned by the Nazarenes for supposedly committing ‘an abomination’ or that it continues with an abducted girl being rejected by her father for being ‘unclean’.

The fact that such outrages remain prevalent in many parts of the world today is evidence that Rice’s fictional portrait of both the historical Yeshua and the risen Christ is as timely as it is profound.