Children of God: A Novel
- By Lars Petter Sveen; translated by Guy Puzey
- Graywolf Press
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Jenny Ferguson
- November 9, 2018
Putting a new spin on some of the world’s oldest stories.
Lars Petter Sveen’s Children of God fits right in with higher-education courses where the Bible and the stories contained therein get examined under not exclusively religious lenses.
In prose that is taut and crisp yet ancient — and paradoxically, utterly contemporary — Sveen’s novel-in-stories opens thus: “It was in the days of Herod the Great, in Bethlehem, and we were on the lookout for a little king of the Jews who’d been born. The stars were out, and we’d come to kill him.”
If you’re expecting something stuffy or preachy, something coded or closed off from contemporary experience, Sveen’s first lines ensure you that’s not what you’re getting in this novel.
The characters’ interiority and our access to them draw readers into a fractured narrative that relies as much on your knowledge of the Bible as of ancient history. Sveen’s choice to frequently use the first-person point-of-view creates opportunities for additional intimacy with these historical-fictional composite characters.
Structurally, the novel relies on references to earlier chapters to bind the tales so that readers can identify the connective tissue that exists between them.
In the opening story, we meet Cato and his soldiers tasked with killing the baby Jesus. Next, we are with Jacob’s father, who says, “Jacob took care of it, but afterward he stared out into the night and asked me if I remembered the child killings in Bethlehem. I told him I couldn’t remember anything of that sort from those days, but that I’d heard stories of it.”
These connections translate, almost sideways, into the next chapter, Sarah’s story. It’s in this way, by osmosis, or on a skewed, non-linear trajectory, that each chapter in Children of God leads to the next. The technique is perfect for telling stories about stories and doing so in a concise manner.
In “I Smell of the Earth,” Sarah, Jacob’s mother, says, “I know there are others. They smell like it too. Just a faint hint, but I’m fresh. I’m almost warm. There are some who don’t have that smell, who can’t be seen with your eyes. There are some who taste of the cold wind.”
Sarah is dead, a captive of some dark entity that we are perhaps meant to read as a version of hell. But also, perhaps, this is a new hell, or simply what happens to a body buried after death.
The story moves back and forth through time, which, in this tale, isn’t structured in a way that the living can understand. As such, Sveen uses repetition to signal his shifts. Phrases like “My name’s Sarah. My beloved was calling for me” or “My name’s Sarah. I have ten fingers” hold the narrative together and increase the uneasiness.
At its core, this novel is about good and evil, that theme humanity cannot stop exploring. That’s not to say Children of God is recycling tropes, but the novel does feel familiar — partly because these Christian narratives are pervasive across the world.
In “A Glimmer of Light,” the narrator says, “You pray for good, but good and evil are nothing to pray about. You should pray for a story to belong to, one you can believe in, one you can doubt.” These lines are the core of the novel, and they illustrate how Sveen can recreate religious stories so that they linger as art but retain glimpses of essential truths.
Originally published in Norway, Children of God won the 2016 PO Enquist Literary Prize. Awarded to a Nordic author, it honors work that “has great artistic value and the potential to reach an international audience but has not yet had [its] international breakthrough.”
Now, in this sharply honed translation by Guy Puzey, Sveen’s dark, glimmering novel will reach wider audiences and might find itself on a syllabus for a class where fiction and religion intersect.
Readers who approach Children of God from a purely religious standpoint might struggle, but those — from any or no spiritual background — eager to be challenged will find a wonderful story waiting for them in this book.
Jenny Ferguson is Métis, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice with a Ph.D. She believes writing and teaching are political acts. Border Markers, her collection of linked flash-fiction narratives, is available from NeWest Press. She is the creative-nonfiction editor and à la carte blog editor for carte blanche, where she welcomes pitches for blog posts from BIPOC, QT2S, and disabled writers, as well as writers from other marginalized communities.