By: Alayna Cowden
As a person who, admittedly, shies away from things labeled “historical fiction” and worse, “Christian fiction,” I can’t deny that I felt a little apprehensive in starting this book. Would it be corny and preachy? Would Jesus be portrayed in a way that isn’t accurate or seems pushy?
Hence, it took me a while to muster up the courage to read Madman. Also, I’ve never really read anything that expressly dealt with things like demons or capital “E” Evil, so I had my reservations. However, I was horribly wrong about this book. It defied every expectation I had about what modern literature should do – and more so, what the function of something labeled “Christian fiction” should do.
Madman takes place in Biblical Palestine on the coast to the Sea of Galilee and follows the protagonist, Tallis, on his quest to discover the how’s and why’s of the disbandment of a Socratic school that was supposed to be operating but, upon his arrival to check on it, hasn’t met for three years. Tallis finds out that two of the school’s teachers have tragically died – one dismembered on the steps of a bath, and another by suicide. To his further dismay, one of the teachers has become head honcho of the local cult of Dionysus, which, though usually characterized by happy drunken revelry and festivals, has a side hustle of sacrificing small boys on the side. At midnight. In the woods. Charming.
The most interesting part of the story comes with the fate of another one of the school’s teachers: he has become the resident madman, and he dwells in the nearby tombs of Kursi, flinging himself in his own filth, eating raw pigs, and generally just screaming.
Tallis is unnerved by the failure of the school and even more so by the mystery of the madman in the hills. Why did he go mad? And why does the dark reality of the Dionysian rites seem to cast a black cloud over everything in town?
Groot bases the story of the madman from the story of the Gerasene demoniac from the gospels of Luke and Mark, who is possessed by many demons who collectively call themselves “Legion.” Her characterization of the man is chilling and believable. The omniscient narrator allows for the reader to get glimpses inside the mind of the madman, Tallis, and a number of other characters, ultimately allowing for the reader to feel intensely connected to them – as if we have been a bystander observing the whole story from all perspectives and reading the journals of each person.
This story is sprinkled with plenty of symbolism and mystery to keep the reader guessing, and Groot gives us a great snapshot of what life was like for people of the time and the conflict that existed between Jews, Greeks, and others in the region. Her research is impeccable and her use of it is creative. She addresses the heavy questions of the time that still plague us today, such as the questions of Truth, Evil, madness, and how humans fit into the dichotomy of good and evil in the universe, all without seeming like she is imposing an ideology on the reader or making Jesus into a preacher who condemns people for their wrongs – rather, she accentuates the mystery and wonder of a time when history started to rewrite itself and all premonitions about the inner workings of the world were turned on their heads. It is a truly wonderful read, enough so that I read it twice. Maybe you will too.