Like any retelling of a popular religious story, Thirst is an ambitious book. Nothomb narrates Jesus’s death from his point of view in three parts: First, while he is in prison awaiting his death sentence, Jesus looks back on his life and anticipates death. Second, he narrates the day of his death, including his physical sensations while dying. Finally, he relates his post-death experience, which might be considered “resurrection,” but in Nothomb’s telling is not so clear.
The book is less historical novel and more theological or philosophical monologue. Nothomb elaborates on three questions that arise from the New Testament Gospels and subsequent Christian theology: First, what was Jesus’s relationship with Mary Magdalene, and why does it matter? Second, what were Jesus’s last words? (The Gospels differ on this point.) Third, was Jesus human or divine or both, and how can one be both? These three questions converge in the idea of “thirst,” a physical sensation that Jesus finds pleasurable and quintessentially human. He calls Mary his “glass of water” and chose his part of the world because it was “a land of great thirst.” Nothomb is most influenced by the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus says from the cross, “I thirst.”
Throughout the book, Jesus refers to literature and art that come after him, including the Gospels. For me, these references were jarring and interrupted the story, especially his quibbles with what Matthew or John said about him. Often the story is too familiar, especially in the second part, which narrates the passion. A book like this must offer something new, and it comes closest to doing so in the concept of thirst and emphasis on the physical sensations of a man who was supposed to be God.