Ever read a book that has been recommended by a friend, that bears on its back cover glowing reviews from sources you usually trust - and find yourself wondering what got into them all? My Name was Judas, by C.K.Stead, is such a book - at least, for me it turned out to be a dead loss.
Actually, I've just seen a comment on the Amazon page which hints at the heart of the matter - even though that particular reviewer, in the Observer, claimed that the book avoided being "a ghastly primary school exercise" by being written "with aplomb". I'm afraid I disagree. This book, as the friend who recommended it said, comes very close to the genre of fanfiction, in which (usually) amateur writers embroider stories onto existing situations, involving existing characters whose every move is already familiar to the fans who make up the primary target of their writing. As the constraints of the genre mean that nothing should deviate from what the original canon suggests might be possible, there is little room for real characterisation or imagination, and much of the appreciation of the new story depends on an intimate knowledge of the original.
And that is what is wrong with this book. A reader unfamiliar with the gospel story would struggle to follow the psychology of the narrator and the relationship with the man Jesus - a figure who is endlessly described but never becomes real. As in a schoolchild's first attempt at fiction, appearance is used as a substitute for any real insight, and Judas' scepticism is continually stressed without any real attempt to explain its origin. We are expected to know about the miracles, the mysterious feeding of multitudes, and be interested by the ingenuity of the narrator's debunking of each of them.
The writing is banal, and the "poems" with which each chapter ends are merely risible (Judas in his old age - and no, he didn't die, folks - is apparently a poet). I'm afraid I can only compare it with the exercise in Standard Grade Reading, in which the student is asked to write a new take on some aspect of a set text - compare it, and award it a Credit grade, but no more.
And as for Alan Massie, James Wood and these other critics from the Sunday Times and the Guardian, I don't know what they were thinking of. I hope they had too many books to read that week, and simply didn't bother.