Lazarus died. Jesus wept. Lazarus rose again. The Gospel of John elaborates a little, but Matthew, Mark and Luke remain silent.
From these slender threads, Richard Beard’s first novel for seven years impressively spins an entire life story. Lazarus and Jesus are childhood friends, fellow exiles in Egypt; the former even saves the latter’s life. Yet they drift apart. While the Messiah builds a following in Galilee, Lazarus grows wealthy selling sacrificial sheep to the Jerusalem temple. Beset by a series of illnesses, he needs a miracle, but Jesus fails to respond.
Beard’s tale of second chances is both a novel and, to some extent, a cultural history of the Lazarus figure. This is hardly as “genre-bending” as the publishers suggest, and the detached tone may alienate some who like their Passion passionate. However, with its subtle parallels between the two “shepherds”, this clever and original book keeps the reader guessing until the death – and beyond.
Lazarus is Dead, by Richard Beard, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99, 272 pages