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Names of the Women Reviews

Names of the Women by Jeet Thayil

Names of the Women

Jeet Thayil

3.00 out of 5

5 reviews

Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publication date: 25 Mar 2021
ISBN: 9781787332928

From the Booker-shortlisted author of Narcopolis, in prose of extraordinary power, a novel about the women whose roles were suppressed, reduced or erased in the Gospels. 'Dazzling, smouldering .

3 stars out of 5
Houman Barekat
4 Apr 2021

"The concept is appealing, if a little muddled"

Thayil’s first foray into historical fiction is a serviceable effort, with some pleasing lines here and there. These include a description of Lazarus, just risen from the dead but in less than fine fettle: “His eyes are the eyes of a chicken, ferocious and empty.” The trouble is that the story of Jesus Christ has been told once or twice before, and those wishing to retell it today must walk a near-impossible tightrope: imbue characters with a deep, 21st-century consciousness and the narrative will feel wincingly anachronistic; render them conservatively and it will read like a bland rehash. Thayil deftly avoids the first trap — the novel is sparing in its portrayal of interiority, and wears its feminist politics relatively lightly — only to fall into the second.

 

Reviews

4 stars out of 5
Stuart Kelly
1 Apr 2021

"You don’t have to be a Christian or a feminist to appreciate Jeet Thayil’s attempt to give voice to the women of the New Testament"

I have to confess I have a slight wariness around novels which retell part of the Bible. There are very good examples, by writers like Richard Beard, Naomi Alderman, Colm Toibin and José Saramago; but far too frequently “the greatest story ever told again” can be strident, sentimental or just plain silly. That said, I was intrigued by Jeet Thayil’s take, Names Of The Women. For one thing he is a very adroit writer, whose novel Narcopolis was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. More intriguingly, he grew up in Kerala Syrian Christian community and was educated by the Jesuits. His author biography includes a nice little anecdote, saying “Jeet’s grandmother, Chachiamma Jacob, was the last of the family who recited from memory the hour-long service in Aramaic, Malayalam and Sanskrit that still defines the faith.” But the real interest here is in the concept of the novel. Thayil’s novel gives voice to the women of the New Testament (the Gospels specifically), to recover the suppressed. What we get is a theologically well-informed, imaginative and affecting book which acts as a rebuke. 

2 stars out of 5
Rebecca Abrams
26 Mar 2021

"This reworking of early Christianity from the perspectives of marginalised women fails to consider their Jewish identities"

In a novel that portrays the characters’ world as inherently corrupt, cruel and destructive, the political freight that comes with Thayil’s use of the word “Israel” is hard to ignore. All the more so in the context of a novel that erases the Jewishness from these women’s identities. It’s true that not all early Christians were Jews, but in Roman Judaea where this novel is mostly set, the majority certainly were — and what is more, would have seen themselves as Jews. Jesus was himself a Jew and in his lifetime preached only to other Jews. Jesus’s vision for a reformed version of Judaism has undoubtedly been distorted by centuries of male-dominated theocracy and is ripe for reclamation. I just wish that in Thayil’s telling, the Jewishness of 1st-century Judaea, and of these women, had not got lost along the way.

3 stars out of 5
Marcel Theroux
24 Mar 2021

"fascinating but patchy"

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.

4 stars out of 5
20 Mar 2021

"Thayil rescues Mary Magdalene’s reputation and creates bold, beguiling stories"

Thayil, best known for his loose-knit trilogy of novels set in Mumbai, here draws on his Syrian Christian heritage to rework the gospel stories with imagination and integrity. At times he takes his feminist mission too far, as when Aquila claims that Jesus said not only ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into heaven’, but ‘It is easier for a woman to enter heaven than for a man’, which is simply to substitute one form of exclusivity for another. But, overall, this is a bold and beguiling addition to the canon of New Testament fiction.