Dom got a preview copy of The Doves of Galilee and it sat on my shelf for a long time. It looked interesting, but it was a big fat book and it seemed like a commitment. But when I was looking for something to read during the Easter season, I wanted something fiction since I’d mainly been reading non fiction during Lent. And this looked thematically appropriate. Spending the Easter season reading about the twelve apostles. That seemed right. And it really was a great choice, I read it very slowly, savoring the story and I felt like I did immerse myself in thinking about the early apostolic Church and about the personalities of the various apostles. Since during the Easter Season we read from the Acts of the Apostles and the Book of Revelation, there were often intersections between what I was reading and the liturgical readings for the season.
So I did enjoy the book, but it was very uneven and there were things that drove me bonkers. Like most self-published books, it was sorely in need of an editor. There were moments of beauty, though, and though much of it is necessarily highly speculative, I liked getting a feeling of the scope and breadth of the apostolic travels.
So the novel is told in third person limited, point of view shifting among the various apostles and some of the apostolic companions. It is divided into twelve chapters, one for each apostle. And each chapter begins and ends with a prologue and epilogue that follow St John the Evangelist. Too much of the story is told in flashbacks. That’s one thing a good editor would have cleaned up. The plot structure was torturous at times, jumping back and forth in time with awkward transitions. The narrator must follow the protagonist’s thoughts back and forth in time instead of just making the jump to the past. It felt forced much of the time.
The first two chapters especially felt really choppy. I hadn’t yet figure out what the deal was with the frame narrative with the epilogue and prologue from John’s point of view. Then the main chapter is also framed with James bar Zebedee approaching Jerusalem (the apostles are gathering for the council at Jerusalem) and remembering various episodes from his childhood, from his time with Jesus, from his apostolic mission to Hispania. Then at one point the point of view jumps from James to his companion, Stephaton, a Roman mercenary who assisted at the crucifixion. Then back to James and then back to John. It’s dizzying.
As the novel progresses each chapter follows the same pattern: frame with John, main chapter from the point of view of the apostle, going back and forth in time as he reflects on his time with Jesus and the relationships with the other apostles and with Mary. Then an interlude with one of the men who assisted at the passion and crucifixion. Then back to the apostle who is protagonist of the chapter, then back to John.
The stories of the men who assisted at the crucifixion (not all of them were Romans or soldiers, so I can’t think of a succinct way to refer to them) are an interesting device. According to this novel’s accounting of events, all of these men underwent an almost immediate conversion at the time of the crucifixion and they were all baptized shortly after Pentecost, thereafter becoming companions to the apostles. It’s an interesting device that is reminiscent of Louis de Wohl’s The Spear, told from the point of view of the centurion Longinus. Their flashbacks allow us to experience the passion from a series of perspectives that I’d never really considered aside from reading The Spear. Iezzi gives us all of them: the scourger, the one who drove in the nails, the one who wrote the titulus and carried it through the streets. And all of them became followers of Christ. I found their accounts very moving, the memories of how Christ’s presence that day broke through the walls of their sin and indifference. They were all men who routinely hurt and abused and tortured others and seem so terribly far from being open to God’s mercy. And yet they all seek out the Twelve after Pentecost, longing to know more of Christ. Beautiful tales of God’s mercy.
The whole structure feels contrived and forced at times, though it does allow the novel to have a broad range and does provide a sense of continuity. After all, any novel with twelve protagonists is probably going to feel unwieldy except in the hands of a master storyteller. Still, I’ll say this about the structure, after the first few chapters the reader knows what to expect and it doesn’t feel quite so disjointed.
Once I got past the choppy, frequent transitions, I found myself absorbed in the sweep of the story, the drama and danger and above all the deep faith. Iezzi isn’t as skillful a storyteller as the great Louis de Wohl, but he does spin a good yarn. And the upshot is I find myself being drawn to prayer and contemplation, thinking about the Gospels and the Epistles and above all about the lives of those great saints, the Apostles who can often flatten out in my mind to plaster reliefs. Iezzi succeeds in bringing them and their world to life. I’m no Biblical scholar and so can’t speak to the accuracy of his research. But it definitely lives and breathes.
The title refers to the novel’s imagery of the spirits of the apostles appearing to John as doves as each one goes to his final rest with the Master. (Reminds me of how St Benedict saw Scholastica’s soul like a dove.) I thought the device felt forced and overly sentimental and I wasn’t quite sure what the point was.
One other stylistic choice that I disliked strongly was how the text dealt with words imported from Latin or Greek or other languages. It italicized the Latin and then put the English translation immediately afterward but not set off by commas. e.g.: “Ignotus, a former Roman scriptor writer and companion of Nescius,” and “Linus and his mother, Clorisa, were in the platea main street in Volterra” and “The Pasch Passover was a holiday of promise.” It’s confusing because it makes the foreign word seem like an adjective modifying the English word instead of an appositive, a different way of saying the same thing. Even though I know Latin, I found myself wondering what a “scriptor writer” is. In short, the novel doesn’t follow convention and so is jarring every time it happens. I never found myself able to ignore it.
A funny anecdote. Recently we celebrated the feast of St Barnabas and in the morning I read the second reading from Acts 13 when Barnabas and Saul are sent by the Holy Spirit from Antioch through the prayers of Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, who laid hands on Saul and Barnabas and sent them on a mission. Well, that evening I picked up Doves of Galilee and wouldn’t you know it I read about that very incident. Now in a book that is 700 pages long, what are the odds, I’d be reading the proper passage to line up with the feast day?
On the whole I’m glad I read it. The stylistic quibbles I had were never enough to make me put the book down.