Fortunately, his characters speak not in the stilted Charlton Hestonisms perilous to biblical fictioneers, but in blasts of steaming vulgarity that breathe pungent life into the ancient setting. The workmanlike prose lights up when fire and blood charge through it. Damascus affords Tsiolkas ample room to indulge his penchant for the visceral, with its tone and atmosphere of a gruelling Islamic State documentary and numerous scenes of cruelty and torture. Saul hands over a boy to a pagan woman who, in retribution for the child’s insult to her goddess, has him castrated and raped, then cuts out his tongue. The child’s ordeal is a severe test of Saul’s faith.
Christos Tsiolkas’s breakthrough novel The Slap took no prisoners in skewering middle-class Australian life. Damascus is even more confrontational: a brutal vision of the world of St Paul where babies are left to die, among other barbarities on a colossal scale. Tsiolkas has admitted that Saul’s Damascene conversion is a way in which he could process his own teenage shame at his sexuality, and while this isn’t a “finding God” novel – the author is a non-believer – he is evangelical about St Paul’s beliefs in justice and compassion. The ancient setting doesn’t always marry with Tsiolkas’s modern sensibilities, and it does feel slightly earnest, but more power to him for taking such risks.
As a novelist, Tsiolkas belongs to what was once known as the “moralist” tradition — that is, of fiction animated by the spirit of ethical inquiry. The Slap, his 2008 worldwide bestseller, which has twice been adapted for television, explored the aftermath of an act of corporal punishment towards a child at a barbecue. Meanwhile his other novels are immersed in gay sexuality. The body — what we do with it, and why — is Tsiolkas’s enduring concern in his fiction, and it makes sense that he now turns to Paul, the original philosopher of the flesh.
In Damascus (Atlantic £16.99) Christos Tsiolkas, the author of novels about contemporary Australian society such as The Slap, has unexpectedly turned his attention to the early history of Christianity. Christ has died on the cross and, for the next few decades, his followers await his promised return. From a variety of perspectives, most notably that of Paul, tormentor of Christians turned travelling apostle, Tsiolkas explores the experiences of the new, revolutionary creed’s adherents. Damascus is a highly coloured, visceral read — full of blood, appalling violence and the miseries of life...
Of course, it’s not enough for a book merely to be heartfelt, and the more this one goes on — and go on it rather does — the more earnest, even obsessive it becomes. Tsiolkas has clearly done his homework (apparently he worked on the novel for 14 months before writing a word). We therefore get a thorough grounding in the debates among the first Christians as they faced the terrible implications of Jesus’s baffling failure to return to earth as promised.