A Messiah in the Family

Walter Nash

  • Kingdom come by Bernice Rubens
    Hamish Hamilton, 312 pp, £12.99, February 1990, ISBN 0 241 12481 6
  • The Other Side by Mary Gordon
    Bloomsbury, 337 pp, £13.99, January 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0473 3
  • The Alchemist by Mark Illis
    Bloomsbury, 244 pp, £13.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0468 7
  • The way you tell them: A Yarn of the Nineties by Alan Brownjohn
    Deutsch, 145 pp, £11.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 233 98496 8

Of the extraordinary life and activities of Shabbetai Tzevi, or Sabbatai Zebi (1626-76), sage, scholar, mystic, apostate and self-proclaimed Messiah, an important figure in the history of Judaism, I must confess to knowing nothing until Bernice Rubens captured my interest in the remarkable existence and rum doings of one Sabbatai Zvi, holy roller, profligate, manic-depressive, loving son, passionate friend, a light never quite to lighten the gentiles, but certainly a light of a fitful and most garish kind. Ms Rubens obviously knows the difference between historical identity and fictional personage, and would not expect her readers – give or take the odd reviewer – to get up into the high bookstacks for a short unguided seminar on Shabbetaianism before settling down on the sofa to enjoy Kingdom come. History has concerns that fiction need not share. Nevertheless, writers of historical fiction are constrained by the very facts that inspire them: if your story tells the life of a real person, real life has written half of your plot for you.

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