Title: Next Year in Jerusalem
Author: John Kolchack
Genre: Historical fiction
Where I got the book: I received a free e-copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.
My rating: ★★★☆☆
Summary: Yeshua Bar-Yosif, the illiterate and epileptic bastard son of a Roman soldier, struggles on his journey through first century Roman-occupied Judea. He eventually forms his own group of followers and preaches for peace and compassion in a terror-stricken land, and on the way he encounters the growing movement of anti-Roman extremist rebels, led by Bar-Abbas. Both Yeshua and Bar-Abbas’ journey ends in the court of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, and the decisions made in this court will impact the world for the next two millennia.
“What did he know? And what did he preach? What did he tell these people who thirsted, other than tell them to be decent and to do no evil?”
– Next Year in Jerusalem, John Kolchack
I’ll go right out and say I don’t know how to really place this book. On one hand I can see that some might find this book offensive. It deconstructs the Bible and interprets the life of Jesus (Yeshua) and his ministry in a different light, and it’s not always a positive one. On the other hand it considers the miracles described in the Bible, such as virgin birth, to be up for interpretation, which can make for rather interesting reading. It is also possible to place this novel in a bigger picture and relate it to current issues regarding religious extremism and terrorism.
The book was a little slow to get through in the beginning, something which I found lasted a bit too long for a book that’s relatively short (322 pages in paperback format). All the events described in the first half or so of the book were definitely essential to get a proper establishment of the plot and the characters, but this first half dragged for me. By the time I was finally into the story and I started feeling a certain connection, it was quickly nearing its end.
Overall, it’s a well-written book. Every now and then some of the dialogue sounds perhaps a bit unrealistic to me, but there’s solid writing in how the characters are described, especially Yeshua and Pontius Pilate. These are characters you really get to know. Pilate is written as a moody and ruminating Roman governor, a smart and ambitious man ridden by moments of anxiety and self-deprecation. Yeshua is written in a very human way, he’s uneducated and illiterate, and while he grows more and more outspoken throughout the story, he often falters and doubts his preaching and beliefs. Bar-Abbas, in contrast, sadly comes across as a bit two-dimensional next to the other main characters.
I also like the way Biblical events are set in a context that is plausible and familiar at the same time. You can recognize the reflection of many Biblical figures in the characters’ names and roles. The book also doesn’t – in lack of a better word – preach despite its content, and many of the interpretations are elegantly worked into the story. However, some larger, direct parallels are sometimes drawn, for example to Nazi Germany, which I find are reaching a bit. Actually, I can appreciate these comparisons and links to recent history but looking at it as a reader first and foremost, these comparisons simply transcend time and space in a way that makes them stick out in the overall text as something entirely new. It’s like including a passage just for the sake of having included it because it’s well-written, not because it fits, and you almost feel that the story has gone off on a tangent. This might just boil down to writing style, but when I read this I thought it made the prose more purple than it needed to be.
This isn’t the type of book I’d usually go for, but all in all this was still an interesting read. Execution-wise it’s maybe not all there but the concept is nevertheless intriguing.