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by Anthony Oliveira

Anthony Oliveira (Mike Meehan)

In his genre-bending debut novel, Dayspring, Toronto writer Anthony Oliveira has crafted a truly one-of-a-kind depiction of the life of Jesus Christ – reimagined from the perspective of the apostle John, described in the Bible as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” But in Dayspring, that love is decidedly romantic – and explicitly carnal.

That’s not all. Experimental in both form and content, the book shifts back and forth between ancient Biblical settings and modern-day Toronto. In its pages, Jesus freely quotes Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. And the story is told in the form of a 400-plus page free-verse epic poem. Every step of the way, Oliveira confounds expectations, rewarding the patient and open-minded reader with an unusual – and occasionally disorienting – impressionistic sensory experience.

Dayspring is an amalgam of its author’s unique preoccupations. Raised Roman Catholic and a former altar boy, Oliveira is an award-winning chronicler of the contemporary queer community who has also written a PhD thesis on the subject of 17th-century English literature. Adopting a non-linear approach to narrative, Dayspring shifts from retellings of Biblical parables in contemporary vernacular to stream-of-consciousness poetry to tender, romantic exchanges between Jesus and his lover.

In terms of form, Oliveira does whatever suits his purposes. Some pages are dense with text; others contain only a few lines. Vast sections of the book contain neither capitalization nor punctuation. Some sections are indented; sometimes the text has ragged-left borders. In a nod to “red letter editions” of the Bible, the words of Jesus are printed in crimson ink. Dayspring frequently has an incantatory feel, as if it were intended to be read aloud. But there are moments when the book’s wordplay may leave readers puzzled. For instance, in one segment John takes the subway to visit Jesus to work on homework together; we are told “your math textbooks are all disgorged like error disembowelled barfing quadratics.”

Scattered throughout the text are poems and other writings from a panoply of Christian thinkers from a range of eras, including German theologian Meister Eckhart and French mystic Marguerite Porete, who was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310. There’s a passing reference to a Joni Mitchell song. An excerpt from Milton’s Paradise Lost goes unattributed. One seemingly autobiographical fragment recalls an early 1970s CTV children’s puppet show called The Waterville Gang. Other Canadian references include a description of Jesus’s nipples as “big as toonies.”

There is a lot going on in Dayspring. In addition to depicting the love between Jesus and his disciple, the text includes other stories from the Bible that concern same-gender intimacy or the flouting of gender norms, such as the story of Jonathan and David, as well as the baptism of Qinaqis, a gender-variant Ethiopian evangelist. Dayspring also considers a wide range of social-justice issues; for instance, there are references to Canada’s history of forcing Indigenous children into residential schools. Several pages are excerpted from the writings of slavery abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Perhaps by evoking struggles for liberation across time and place, Oliveira seeks to elucidate one of Jesus’s central teachings, that you should love your neighbour as you love yourself. Whether all these digressions and explorations add nuance to the story is left for the reader to decide.


Reviewer: Shawn Syms

Publisher: Strange Light


Price: $34.00

Page Count: 432 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-0-7710-0382-0

Released: April

Issue Date: April 2024

Categories: Fiction: Novels, Reviews