Bloomsbury USA, $24.95, 256 pp.
On a storm-plagued island in the Aegean huddle the last adherents—for all they know, anyway—of a besieged faith. The wind shreds cloth; the sea churns and lashes at the shore; food is paltry and fires flicker dangerously low; all is rain and rock and dark, tumultuous brooding. And in the midst of this turmoil lives an ancient blind man, the sight blasted clean from his eyes by something that happened to him, once, here, as he stood upon a stone.
Niall Williams’s latest novel takes up the story of the beloved disciple, John, years into his exile on Patmos. Williams, author of many previous novels and works of nonfiction, has said that the idea for this book came to him mysteriously, in the form of a single, simple question: What was John doing the day before he wrote the Gospel? The answer plays out against a backdrop of turbulence, not only in the conditions of life on the island, but in an unfolding crisis of faith. Though John has witnessed, and been witness for, what God has planned, the Christ has not come. The promised kingdom is still yet to be. And those who have suffered for the Word made flesh have been left, on a barren island, with the hard business of believing.
John digs down to the roots of both faith and heresy. The apostle is himself confused by God’s silence, and some of his followers have begun to fall away. One, Matthias, asks questions that echo skeptics through...