John, the beloved, long lived disciple

We meet them on a forbidding island, in banishment, as Diocletian's persecution flows around the Roman world. They are a band of exiled Christians, led by a blind man, once visionary, now ebbing tired. He is the Apostle, John, the beloved disciple. His followers cling to the hoped for coming of Christ but the waiting takes its toll. Alternative beliefs, skillfully manipulated, grow up to challenge John's leadership and schism occurs, Matthias leading most of the younger men into a gnostic cult, with him conveniently at its head.

Niall Williams' novel, 'John' grapples with the core question of how does love endure through the hardship of a necessary disillusionment - when Jesus fails to appear in the manners expected either in small miracle or grandiose Second Coming - and how does faith develop around story and community. Why is love shared ultimately enduring in spite of people's continue seeking of sign and confirmation?

Though it is not, of course, for everybody so the drama of the novel is both the exterior struggle over the abiding interpretation of the faith and Jesus' meaning and the interior struggle of remaining faithful, and developing faithfully, what one has received. Some of the best passages are John's recollection of his life with Jesus and Williams captures both the impetuosity of John's faith and its maturation under Jesus' liberating spell.

In essence, the answer is that of Dame Julian of Norwich that the meaning of Christ was love, a love held in spite of all, and the alternatives offered to John's witness continually fail this test. They are all in some way corrupted by power and do not come to settle and work themselves out in the complex embodiments of everyday life. (It was a fate in prospect for John's Gospel too, in the course of time, a continuous temptation). Williams very skillfully weaves the birth of what becomes John's Epistle, that extraordinary hymn to love as the measure of all things, out of a very believable scenario that of being a response to a fragmenting communion in danger of losing its way and in need of reaffirmation, a bolstering word.

It is a beautiful novel - delivered in Williams' high poetic style where the language lures you on in its singing and where the unexpected, marvellous, indeed miraculous can appear everyday and be believed.

John is renewed, and with the lifting of the persecution, returns to Ephesus to renew the faith from its reduced circumstance, and to a final confrontation with Matthias, and where, after a stroke, he decides to recite (and form) the words of the Gospel. There is nothing 'historical' in this account (though Williams has done his homework) but as an expression of a person come to a critical moment and the need to speak a final truth, it is beautifully and authentically wrought.

It could be true or, alternatively, its truth is in its imagination.


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