I feel the need to start this review with a caveat. I’m carrying the seemingly requisite load of baggage that comes with having been raised a Catholic and subsequently parting ways with that faith. I presume this fact makes me more inclined to devour stories about the machinations of the Catholic church and arcane issues of religious dogma than someone without all that baggage so if you are not quite so weighed down you may not be as enamoured of THE FIFTH GOSPEL as I am. That said, I think there are lots of things to enjoy about the book even if reading it does not bring with it a flood of memories and half-buried emotions.
Although many reviews make mention of the fact that THE FIFTH GOSPEL covers something of the same subject matter as Dan Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE I don’t agree. To me they have as much in common as a McDonalds happy meal has with dinner served in a restaurant awarded 3 Michelin stars. Caldwell’s novel is a thoughtful and thought provoking tale exploring, among other subjects, brotherhood, faith and redemption (I’ll have a little more to say about the other book later).
Simon and Alex Andreou are both Catholic priests but while Simon is part of the more well-known Roman Catholic tradition Alex, like their father, is an Eastern Catholic. This book is set during the final days of the reign of Pope John Paul II and depicts a leader desperate to reunite the two churches which split during the mid 11th century. Simon and Alex’s father (Eastern Catholic priests are allowed to be married prior to their ordination) had tried to bring about the reunification prior to his death and both his sons are keen to carry on his work. First Simon then Alex become involved with the work of Ugo Nogara, curator of a major Vatican museum exhibition. Nogara discovers a document which appears to be a fifth gospel but even more explosive than the document’s very existence is what it might reveal about one of Catholicism’s holiest of relics and the schism between the two arms of Catholicism. Nogara is murdered a week before the exhibit is due to open, the newly discovered gospel disappears and Simon comes under suspicion of the murder.
The plot which follows is complex and, for me at least, completely captivating as it teases out church history as well as depicting the modern Catholic church and all of its political machinations. Somewhat paradoxically for someone whose faith has lapsed I liked that the book does not show the religion as all bad. Or all good. Rather it is shown as a complicated, almost living beast made of people who do bad – and good – things. Caldwell does a particularly good job of exploring the difficulties involved in effecting change inside such an institution. Even if you are an all-powerful Pope it’s not a foregone conclusion that you’ll get your own way.
There are lots of fascinating characters here but Alex is the heart of the book and very engaging. He is bringing up his young son Peter alone since his wife abandoned them soon after Peter’s birth. As the troubling events of the novel unfurl Alex has to juggle his efforts to uncover the truth about the murder, and thereby clear his brother’s name, with his desire to keep Peter safe from the powerful forces within the Church hierarchy who would rather the truth of Nogara’s findings and murder remain a mystery. He endures a lot of physical and mental strain and Caldwell makes the reader feel like we are right there beside him all the way as his faith in himself, his church and his brother are all tested.
I must thank fellow blogger Belle of Ms Bookish for pointing me towards this book which I thoroughly enjoyed and can see myself returning to in the future. If you are looking for a Dan Brown-style, rapid paced thriller full of exposition and nonsense this is not the book for you. But if you fancy a book that reveals its many secrets at a more considered pace, that offers some genuinely fascinating insights into the history of Catholicism and the way in which the church operates today and that introduces you to some unforgettable people then I recommend THE FIFTH GOSPEL.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Simon & Schuster 
Length 431 pages
Book Series standalone
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