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A human story teased out of biblical complexities

The Liars’ Gospel - review.

The Liars’ Gospel
Naomi Alderman
Viking, 272pp, £12.99

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by novels about biblical figures in which the boundary between fact and fiction, always the thorn in historical fiction’s side, is especially ambiguous. David Maine took on Noah in his novel The Flood, then Cain and Abel in Fallen, working the sparse details of the known stories into richly imagined domestic dramas. In Only Human, Jenny Diski recast the story of a photographic history of the capital from the reign of Queen Victoria to the present day. One of the earliest images in the book, which was taken in 1839, shows a view looking south down Whitehall towards the Houses of Parliament. The book closes with Sohei Nishino’s 2010 diorama of London, assembled from thousands of individual pictures Abraham and Sarah as a love triangle, with God the arrogant, petulant and gloriously narcissistic third party. Diski and Maine deploy humour to explore the relationship between the human and the divine to great effect. Comedy is the dominant key for these retellings but it’s comedy shot through with something much darker.

Now Naomi Alderman enters the fray with The Liars’ Gospel, a novel that circles around the elusive historical character of Jesus. She is by no means the first. Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son put the familiar story into Jesus’s voice to interrogate the New Testament versions. Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ attempted to extricate the human Jesus from the Messiah his disciples made of him. Others, from Thomas Jefferson to Stephen Mitchell, have likewise attempted to distil the teachings of the itinerant preacher Jesus from the overwritings of the early Christians.

Alderman, however, is doing something rather different. While The Liars’ Gospel shares a central preoccupation with the nature of truth and the inherent slipperiness of words and memories, it roots its characters firmly and vividly in their historical and political context. You can see, hear, smell and taste first-century Judaea on every one of its pages. Alderman, whose previous two novels were concerned with contemporary Judaism, here succeeds magnificently in re-Judaising a story set 2,000 years in the past.

Jesus, Mary and the others are given back their Jewish names: Yehoshuah, Miryam, Iehuda. Yehoshuah/Jesus is one of numerous preacher-healers roaming Judaea. Pilate is one beleaguered and incompetent local ruler among many and answerable to his bosses back in Rome in what was then a relative backwater in the vast sprawl of the Roman empire. Religions existed cheek by jowl and had as much to do with power as with belief – then as now. Violence was endemic. If you think things are bad in Syria today, compare it with living in Jerusalem circa 30AD. Civilian massacres were routine, bloodshed common, deadly skirmishes between rebels and rulers commonplace. The city was a tinderbox that ignited with gruesome regularity.

The story in the novel is told through four narrators, their accounts overlapping and competing: Miryam, rejected by her son in his short lifetime and torn between sorrow and anger in the aftermath of his execution; Caiaphas, the high priest of the Jewish temple, in the pay of the Romans and the Jews and obliged to watch his back as carefully as he keeps the faith; Iehuda of Qeriot, the sceptic, trying to stay in the slipstream and survive in uncertain times; and Bar-Ova, the rebel leader, who understands the rules of the game and will play to the bitter end.

What Alderman’s telling has that others often lack is her mother-tongue familiarity with the Torah and Talmud. You can tell when a novelist is faking it and Alderman is clearly not. If you want a sense of what it meant to be Jewish in Jesus’s day, this is as good as it gets. Her evocation of religious life in the last days of the Second Temple (rebuilt by Herod and plundered definitively by Titus’s troops in 70AD) is superb. The mind boggles at the quantities of lambs and doves sacrificed each day, the hours spent preparing spices and grains for ritual offerings – and behind the scenes, the equally endless, equally knife-edge, balancing act required of Jewish religious leaders as they tried to placate the god-emperors in Rome and the one God in heaven.

Alderman’s handling of the events leading to the decisive moment when the crowd votes to save the murderer Bar-Ova/Barabbas and not the preacher Yehoshuah is also brilliant. Bar-Ova’s hatred of the Roman occupiers and his zealous determination to “drive them into the sea” has unmistakeable parallels to the position of Palestinian extremists today that Alderman is too bold and honest a writer to try to obscure.

Yet The Liars’ Gospel is principally about human beings and the ways in which we narrativise our lives as we live them. “Every story has an author, some teller of lies,” we read. “Do not suppose for a moment that an impartial observer exists.” The lies we tell ourselves, the lies we tell others, the lies we do not even know are lies when we tell them, the lies we tell to save ourselves, the lies we need to believe are truths – all weave their way through these four alternative “gospels”. Yehoshuah is an enigmatic wraith who slips through all four narratives and frequently vanishes altogether. After reading this provocative and mesmerising novel, I’m quite prepared to believe that’s as good a truth as any.

Rebecca Abrams is the author of “Touching Distance” (Pan Macmillan, £7.99)

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.