Richard Beard’s latest novel (released last year) is a retelling of the Lazarus story and simultaneously an examination of the story behind the story which peels back the layers of meaning that have massed around this key bible story. A massive amount of academic research is present within the text, and the book shifts between styles, at times playing out like a typical third person novel, at times like a memoir or biography, at times like an historical text or anthropological study. So much is going on that the danger is that the text might drift into a mish-mash of ideas and styles but that is never the case. This book seems to defy the weight of its ambition and rattles along.
In a peek behind the authorial curtain, we catch an explicit glimpse of the intention behind the book’s unique approach to the subject:
‘A point of stagnation has been reached in scholarly and theological studies. A new approach is needed, and imaginative representations are an undervalued source of data. Evidence can be extrapolated through careful research, making significant contribution to the sum of our knowledge.
With Lazarus, but also in many other fields, innovative discoveries can be made by trusting the historical human imagination. Admittedly, reconstructions have to be revised as new imaginative records become available, but biographers should stay faithful to the patterns that consistently emerge.’
Lazarus is Dead shows just such a new approach in practice. Part biography, part historical account, part examination of the cultural and social background of the Lazarus story, this books attempts to uncover the ‘truth’ behind the bible story through a fictionalised exploration of the know facts/fictions. Beard stays true throughout to this mission statement laid out in the closing pages of the book.
Does this make Lazarus is Dead a dry read? Not at all. It’s a fascinating and enthralling book, not least because of the effortless transitions between the book’s various narrative styles. If you have even the slightest interest in the Lazarus story, or indeed in how stories accrete detail as they are retold, then this is required reading. A clever, engaging and novel book. Not a novel in the typical sense, but novel in the real sense.