All you need is love


<em>Niall Williams</em>

Bloomsbury, 288pp, £16.99

Exiled on the remote island of Patmos, the blind and aged John, once a disciple of Jesus, awaits the return of Christ together with a small band of stoical followers. Eventually their hope withers and, encouraged by the scheming Matthias, many renounce Christ’s teachings to rejoin the world of men. A group stays on, however, including John’s most devoted follower, young Papias. This tale is chiefly about the inner lives of the boy and the old man: how their beliefs are challenged, how they develop and endure.

“John” is an amalgamation of several figures in the New Testament and historical records. We come to know him better through his vivid memories of Jesus. Niall Williams’s lyrical prose often takes a form similar to prayer (“Let me serve you again with strength and body,” pleads John), but this feels natural rather than contrived. The characterisations of Papias and Matthias are uneven: while the inner turmoil of Papias is teased out well, Matthias’s evil remains two-dimensional. But Williams prefers to focus on the workings of love; his exploration of the tensions and contradictions of faith is enough to compensate.

As John comes to know, “from the raw and tender stuff of love and its disappointment is painfully fashioned enlightenment”.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism