Title: The Secret Books
Author: Marcel Theroux
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Faber Fiction
Published: 27th September, 2017
Synopsis: A world on the brink of catastrophe. A two-thousand-year-old mystery. A lost gospel. Both a page-turning adventure and an examination of the stories that humans are willing to kill and die for.
Seeking adventure, a young man flees the drudgery of shopkeeping in Tsarist Russia to make a new life among the bohemians and revolutionaries of 19th century Paris.
Travelling undercover in the mountains of British India, he discovers a manuscript that transforms the world’s understanding of the historical Jesus.
Decades later, in a Europe threatened by unimaginable tragedy, he makes a despairing attempt to right a historic injustice.
This breathtaking novel by the award-winning author of Far North and Strange Bodies tells the extraordinary tale of Nicolas Notovitch and his secret gospel.
It is the epic story of a young man on the make in a turbulent world of spies and double-cross, propaganda and revolutionary violence, lost love and nascent anti-semitism – a world which eerily foreshadows our own era of post-truth politics.
Based on real events, The Secret Books is at once a page-turning adventure and an examination of the stories that humans are willing to kill and die for.
With most historical fiction novels, it is easy to delineate between the history behind the story, and the fictional elements the author has employed – whether it is characters, or integration of time travel, employed in books such as the Outlander series, or an alternate history, where elements can be changed but some aspects remain historically the same to ensure a degree of authenticity. The Secret Books by Marcel Theroux takes these aspects and turns them on their head, making the reader question what is real, and what is not, and in doing so, has written a clever piece of literary fiction that captures a figure and a moment in time linked to his family, and that interrogates the Pali Gospels, looking at the lost years of Jesus in a historical context, with a touch of spirituality thrown that illuminates the doubt that the religious scholars the main character interacted with had when he presented them with his theories.
Nicolas Notovitch was a real person, the one who looked into these lost years and tried to bring them to the attention of the world, suggesting that the gospels had somehow ignored these years in favour of spreading the message they wanted. At the same time, it explores the journey Nicolas took that led him to these gospels, and down a path of love, marriage and fatherhood, beginning during the late nineteenth century and moving forward into the early decades of the twentieth century, the First World War and eventually, the beginnings of the Second World War. Nicolas’s obsession with proving the existence of these books will cost him – he does not know what until it happens, and I felt him have his heart broken and the rug ripped from beneath his feet. In following a passion for discovering something of historical importance, he had sacrificed the passion and love of family. Prior to discovering these manuscripts and investigating them, Nicolas had escaped his dreary life in Russia for a new bohemian one in Paris, where he meets a variety of characters who introduce him to new ways of thinking such was McGahan, a female journalist in a male dominated world – one aspect that had me questioning whether this was set in current times, a time travel story or whether the author was having a bit of fun with the history – and I feel it was the latter as it left me questioning whether that would have been possible in the time period and social structure of the time.
With each section book-ended by quotes, it was an unusual yet intriguing format that questions what we know about history and what is known about Biblical history, and how these books could alter our understanding of religion and history, and how it might impact religious scholars. It interrogated how people respond to the unknown with fear, something that happens in many areas and places. It was an intriguing book, but one that needs focus to be read, and fully appreciated. It may not be the best before bed book, but it is indeed one that will have an audience out there – and one that can be appreciated by anyone with an interest in history and society.