Novel of the week

Only Human

Jenny Diski <em>Virago, 215pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 1860498396

Readers of Diski's memoir, Skating to Antarctica, published last year, will know all about her traumatic experiences as the only child of two seriously cookie parents. Oedipal threesomes crop up regularly in her novels, too. In Only Human, she swaps the icy wastes of Antarctica for the deserts of Judaea, and the central triangle this time consists of Abram, Sarai and God. The battleground between them is reproduction itself. "Reproduction was my invention," says God peevishly. Sarai wants a child; Abram wants an heir; God wants - well, what do parents always want? Obedience, respect, gratitude.

Diski's God is a comic tour de force: he doesn't just have personality, he has attitude. Stroppy, conceited, indignant, he stomps about eternity, railing against his creatures, but not quite able to turn his back on them either. He is outraged at the ability of his humans to push him out of the picture; to his chagrin, they are always one step ahead, inventing things he hasn't yet thought of, responding in ways he hadn't planned. When God tells Abram that he will have a son within a year, Abram throws himself on the ground, sobbing not with relief or gratitude, but "with tearless howls of mirth". The actual scene occurs in Genesis 17, but Diski's reworking is brilliant, a moment of hubris for God himself.

Theologically, Diski is following an honourable tradition, even if she takes it in directions that some might find offensive. Jewish scholars have for centuries been fleshing out the biblical narrative, supplying explanations, motivations and elaborations on the basic texts. And there are some wonderful inventions here. Noah, for example, is cast as a victim of survivor guilt, "the world's first drunk", drowning his anguish at having connived in mass destruction.

Similarly, when Diski casts God as a protagonist in an ongoing narrative, she positions herself within an established Hebraic tradition: the God of the Old Testament has always been recognised as a God of many moods, his relationship with man noted for its intimacy, but also its conflict.

Only Human explores the comedy of creation, divine and human, the absurdity of it all. But the novel is equally, more seriously, an exploration of what love, divine and human, can and cannot do. As God strives to get the most out of his wayward creatures, sometimes outwitting them, sometimes being outwitted, Sarai and Abram pass from the hope-filled passion of youth to the familiarity of old age, learning about "the limitations of love", as well as its capacity to surprise. Diski's portrayal of marital love is one of the triumphs of this novel, full of tenderness and quiet compassion.

Only Human is concerned with one other kind of creation - literary creation. Just whose story is this, Diski repeatedly prompts us to ask. The "I am" noisily proclaims that it is his, that all narratives are his. Sarai constantly asserts her own version of events, while Abram waits stolidly to be shown the next twist in the tale before deciding whose side he is on. And behind all three is the quietly laughing voice of Diski herself, whose "I" slips into the story every now and then, just in case we had forgotten she was there. The novel's conclusion is that we are all entitled to our own stories. As one of the narrators puts it: "Eternity needs nothing, humanity needs a story."

This is Diski's best novel yet, a delightful, thought-provoking discourse on creativity, reproduction and the discomforts of free will. If nothing has inclined you to read the Bible before now, this will.

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