“Book Review: Jesus the Time Traveller”
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A provocative inquiry into life’s meaning or lack thereof—especially when God is silent
If Jesus met your gaze, would you follow him?
Roberta-Leigh Boud’s novel Jesus the Time Traveller is told by an existential malcontent, Josh, who opens his eyes in a mysterious wasteland—and there, lo and behold, is Jesus. Jesus is not an easy person to engage, in part because Josh is mired in feelings about his own life. Boud weaves raw emotions into a series of unsettling dialogues that are left open at the edges: not lessons so much as advanced stages of grief.
The story opens in a “desert, with its scrub and stunted brush, [that] seemed to render harsh edges invisible, making the colossal space around us seem boundless and bare.” But it is the spiritual desert that is the focus of Josh’s journey. “I was terrified, and unprepared,” he describes himself on the first day, “feverish and disconnected.”
This novel has its own style of quirky humor and is not at all a typical religious novel. “Jesus is here. He is a dick,” the narrator complains. He is annoyed at Jesus because he is silent and because he will not save anyone.
It is, to the contrary, an atheist argument: God can’t or won’t save humanity and won’t even hold up his end of the conversation. We will behave however we would have behaved anyway, and we will project our worst inadequacies onto our idea of God. We may go through periods—an intense “forty-day” period, a Biblical metaphor for “a long time” or a stretch that feels longer than it is—during which we must decide if our lives have meaning and whether we will nevertheless persevere in what seems to be an eternal desert.
On his trek, Josh is disoriented by real losses. He feels his travails deeply, and they often come in unexceptional forms when considered on the scale of all possible human suffering—many of us have also lost a friend or witnessed an accident—making his journey all the more relatable for many readers.
The novel expertly illustrates the human tendency to succumb to irrational fear and pointless overthinking. We build our lives around our fears, including those that were never real threats (like spiders in the shower) and those that are no longer threats (memories of the accidental deaths of a childhood friend and a man in the street).
Sometimes these “storytelling” fears seem more present to us than immediate challenges (like wandering in a desert with no water). Whatever the nature of our fear, though, it often reduces to the fear of mortality. Josh reflects that “the closer that I have gotten to the black hole of oblivion, the more I have realised my own yearning desire for life and my own piss-my-pants fear of death.”
We also—each of us in our own way—tend to self-marinate in toxic rumination. Josh wears a suit that recycles his bodily wastes, even though the water he reabsorbs in this way is likely insufficient to keep him alive. A “pretty impressive” technology, Josh says, while conceding it is “nothing that really sates any deep hunger.” This clever imagery unrolls the point viscerally.
Many readers look for a traditional storyline and characters of some predictability, stability, or continuity. Those will not be found in this novel. The most reliable character is the angsty narrator. The ghost of his childhood friend (Lutho) is a source of normalizing conversation, but he doesn’t stick around for long. He is shortly replaced by the company of Jesus and a donkey, but Jesus doesn’t talk back, at least not out loud.
With the chapters covering Days 1 through 39 in the desert, there is not a “before” nor an “after” to wrap up this adventure with an ordinary chronological context. We are told that Josh’s spiritual crisis has its hooks in his ordinary life, but we never see his ordinary life. The novelist, Boud, has taken creative risks here by telling a story within the landscape of Josh’s atheist soul. And it works.
Jesus the Time Traveller, though unconstrained by a typical story framework, succeeds in its telling of a cohesive, complex narrative. The speaker begins with his trauma, manifests a memory, literally follows a Jesus in human form, and arrives at his own philosophical answer. He teeters, half-open, half-closed, to opportunities to learn and grow. The novel leverages keen insight into the human condition to open a conversation; it speaks a language that people will hunger for. Those readers may respond by asking themselves where they are in their own journeys and what personal ghosts might be walking with them.
Publisher: Ananke Press
Category: Literary & Religious Fantasy
Paperback: 206 pages
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