Although I've only read two of his novels (the other being The Slap (2008)), I'm convinced that Tsiolkas will go down as one of Australia's greatest writers. There are many reasons, but the main one is that he bridges the gap between popular fiction and literary fiction, therefore introducing more mainstream readers to accessible, yet complex themes, coupled with his almost brutal narrative style that leaves the reader nowhere to hide. Damascus takes on the first ninety years after the death of Jesus in a manner that both attracts and repels, depicting the cruel world of the Roman occupation of the Middle East and the troubled mind of Paul, both before and after his conversion on the road to Damascus. Typically for historical fiction the 'truth' is bent and warped to fit prevalent themes, predominantly a realist depiction of the times; with Tsiolkas almost completely sidelining the 'supernatural' events on the road to Damascus, instead focussing on Paul's sexuality (he wrestles with homosexuality) and the notion that Jesus was actually just an outspoken and rebellious Jew who inspired a religion that is often referred to disdainfully as a death cult.
One of the most striking aspects of the novel is the insight gained into how the poor quality of life for anyone who wasn't a Roman or, to a lesser extent, a Jew, would have made a new religious movement that proclaimed that all are equal in the eyes of God a highly attractive notion. The novel begins with the stoning of a young women, then goes on to depict the lives of slaves, male and female prostitutes, the poor, women who are forced to abandon their unwanted baby girls to the elements and the early adherents of Christianity, who were cruelly killed and tortured by the Romans. It's gruesome, stirring stuff and also utterly compelling. Perhaps my favourite section ( the novel is fragmented through time, sometimes jumping decades) is Faith, which is narrated from the first-person point of view of a Roman soldier called Vrasas. This section opens with the bloody rush of stream of consciousness narrative as Vrasas and his companions are covered in the blood and guts of a sacrificial bull. Through Vrasas the reader is emerged fully in the pagan Roman world and experiences first hand its disdainful attitude toward the strange beliefs of the Christians in their midst.
I wonder just how dedicated Christians may view the more controversial aspects of Damascus. Paul is homosexual and has doubts about his version of Christianity even many years after his conversion. Tsiolkas includes Thomas as the twin brother of Jesus, a twin brother who advocates a much different version of the Christian faith than Paul's, which came to dominate, resulting in the version we still have (to endure) today. Thomas denies the resurrection, instead seeing it as symbolic of the renewal that comes with spring; he believes that the kingdom of God is already here on Earth and talks about he and Jesus loving being on the road, where Jesus could be away from all the responsibilities that await him in Jerusalem. Within Tsiolkas' own struggle with the faith he was brought up with he's written a brilliant novel that not only gives a realistic depiction of the first century of Christendom, but also provides a narrative that is deeply thought-provoking and moving, something that is sorely needed in popular fiction.