The Secret Books
This sweeping historical tale is inspired by real events and characters. Nicolas runs away from a dull life in Crimea as the son of a shopkeeper and his father’s plan for him to attend medical school. His own dream is to be a writer and, swept into a world of travel, adventure and revolution, he journeys throughout Europe and the East finally settling in Paris, where he writes books and reports for the papers in Russia before being recruited as a spy. Renouncing his Jewish heritage, he grapples with his conscience until he discovers a lost gospel: the secret books of the title, which present a radically different version of the life of Christ.
Marcel Theroux’s technique is to present a number of narrative framing devices. The author begins by talking about his own search for a story, and through layers of different people, we are gradually introduced to the story of Nicolas. Theroux occasionally inserts himself into the story again: addressing the reader or explaining his choices. He also adds a number of anachronisms, possibly as an attempt to catch out eagle-eyed readers. I found these literary mechanisms somewhat jarring and felt they detracted from what was otherwise a very interesting and engrossing tale. The story takes place for the most part in the second half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th, and deals with the rise of revolutionary ideals, growing anti-Semitism and the suspicion and consequent conservatism which followed. As such it presents some eerie parallels with our own time. This book will appeal to readers of M. J. Carter’s Blake and Avery mysteries and fans of experimental historical fiction.