Names of the Women by Jeet Thayil review – Bible stories reclaimed

This fascinating but patchy novel explores female characters in the New Testament who have been marginalised and misrepresented by history

Here’s an Easter trivia question for you. Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s companion and is mentioned a dozen times in the New Testament. But what was her line of work? If you answered “prostitution”, as I did, then I’m afraid nul points.

I was so surprised to have my assumptions overturned by Jeet Thayil’s new novel, Names of the Women, that I went to double-check. And in my annotated copy of the Bible, I found: “Occupation: We are not told, but she seems to have been wealthy.”

“Hundreds of years later, men who have never met her will call her a fallen woman,” writes Thayil. “She will be called a sinner, when her only sin is that she is from a prosperous home and she is sad.”

In Names of the Women Thayil reclaims the story of not only Mary Magdalene but of 14 other women who play different roles in the gospels. Thayil, best known for the Booker-shortlisted Narcopolis and raised among adherents of the ancient Christian community in Kerala, has read his Bible carefully. He also draws on ideas from non-canonical texts such as The Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Pilate and a fascinating fragment that turned up in the 19th century called The Gospel of Mary.

Alongside Mary Magdalene, we meet Jesus’s sisters, Assia and Lydia; his followers Susanna and Joanna; Mary of Bethany and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. There are female baddies too: Herodias and her daughter Salome, who call for the head of John the Baptist.

Thayil’s argument is with the systemic misogyny that has marginalised and misrepresented the female characters in the New Testament. We wrongly remember Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Her key role in the narrative – retold here in a wonderful moment of hair-raising strangeness – is to be the first witness to the resurrection. “They will build the Church on the witness of the women,” Thayil writes, “but they will refuse to record their names.”

Where there is no extant material, he fictionalises, naming and filling in the backstory of the adulterous woman Jesus saves from stoning, the maidservant of Caiaphas the high priest, and the wife of the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus.

It’s fascinating to be reminded how little we properly understand one of the foundational stories of western civilisation. And there are moments where the much-pondered events are reframed in a new light and suddenly acquire life and a strange fleshy vigour. Lazarus comes back from the dead emotionally scarred and turns to drink to blot out the experience. Salome’s dance to win the head of John the Baptist becomes a weird, Cirque de Soleil-like display of erotic contortion.

In another nice and oddly plausible touch, Jesus’s sisters characterise him in completely different ways. To Assia, he’s a narcissistic, would-be influencer, minting “seductive phrases designed to win him more fame and followers”. Lydia, meanwhile, recalls “the soft and halting speech that sounds as if it is unsure of itself and doubts its own existence”.

Interspersed between the vignettes of the women are chapters containing the utterings of Jesus on the cross, seemingly dictated to Mary Magdalene as part of a gospel that never made it down to us. “I say unto you who hear these words two hundred or two thousand years after me, what good are the victuals if you cannot eat them, but a stranger eats and is satisfied. That is the way of vanity and darkness.”

A little ersatz scripture goes a long way and there is a great deal of this in the book. The Jesus of Thayil’s novel isn’t quite the unpleasant character his sister Assia describes, but he’s a less complex and more sanctimonious figure than the Biblical Jesus, at times coming across as a hysterical adolescent with a martyr complex. “How can you laugh when your brother’s house is in mourning and your mother tears herself from broken-heartedness? How can you love when your brother, your child, hangs above you, splintered across?” I was also baffled by this Jesus’s doctrine. “Forgiveness is the recourse of the weak and we are not weak and we must not forgive,” he tells Mary. That is definitely not supported by the gospels, though it may be in Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.

While Thayil takes aim at the systemic sexism of the Bible, there are other Biblical assumptions he doesn’t think to question. When Thayil’s Mary gazes at the crowd gathered to watch the crucifixion and and sees it divided between Romans and Jews, she’s looking with the eyes of the later gospel writers. A Jewish observer would surely have just seen Romans and everybody else. Names of the Women follows the traditional narrative that Jesus represents a break with Judaism for which the Jewish elders can’t forgive him. “His story makes Jews want to leave the synagogue and join Christ,” says Martha. Well, that’s an interesting assumption. The difficult and fascinating question of Jesus’s Jewishness – first broached seriously in nonfiction by Geza Vermes in Jesus the Jew and explored in Naomi Alderman’s novel The Liars’ Gospel isn’t touched on here.

And once the design of the book becomes clear, there are diminishing returns to unearthing additional, neglected female characters in the Bible stories. In fact, the book reminded me that RM Lamming’s 2005 novel As in Eden had done a similar thing, but with both Old and New Testament women. Rereading Lamming’s version of Martha, I felt she’d done a better job at evoking the hope and complexity of Martha’s encounter with Jesus, and in much less gloomy and portentous prose than Thayil’s.

It’s a lovely instant where epiphany and female drudgery collide. Names of the Women could do with a few more moments that share its simplicity and obliqueness.

Marcel Theroux’s The Secret Books is published by Faber. Names of the Women is published by Jonathan Cape (£15.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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