There seems to be something of a trend for books set in Italy with a plot that involves the questioning of accepted biblical interpretations (call it the “Bible Conspiracy Theory” plot). The comparisons with Dan Brown are natural, and the reason for choosing this area to write about is obvious: it’s exciting, controversial in its heresy, and rich with drama and complication. Since my own knowledge of both The Bible and The Da Vinci Code are generally less extensive than most people’s, I came to According to Luke with no preconceptions. Dingli’s book has plenty of drama and excitement, and the notion of finding a key artefact with the power to undermine accepted dogma works well as plot device, especially when presented in as well researched, and modern a context as Dingli does.
I’m not normally much of a thriller reader, but According to Luke is really not a thriller as such. The novel is much more historical fiction, with a significant degree of historical accuracy and verisimilitude in its description. The story pivots around the mysterious woman discovered beneath a St Luke Madonna that Jana Hayes is restoring. Who is the woman and why was her portrait hidden? What is it about this portrait that impels both Catholic Church and Muslim Extremists to kill to get hold of it? These are the mysteries that form the centre of the plot, but the real story is about Jana’s development as she moves towards her fears and grows emotionally.
What the book does have in common with other thrillers is the fast pace, the tension and suspense, and just a hint of blood. There’s also a growing romance between Jana and Catholic priest Rob Anderson – two Australians who come to know one another while Jana is working on the painting. Together Jana and Rob are caught up in the mystery around the painting while finding themselves drawn to its secret and to one another.
This is a character driven novel, and the characters reveal their distinctive and sometimes quirky natures through action, for example, Jana’s meticulous sense of pride in her work:
She took up the lancet and levered a particle of fixative – about the size of a small postage stamp – until she could see it was detachable in one piece. She put it aside. Every particle was accounted for. She placed the small fragment on the electronic scales and made a note to be entered on the database later. Excitement didn’t mean that she lost discipline. She was known to be meticulous and continued to be so, but her lips twitched. (13)
Other characters are equally compelling, such as the handsome, conflicted Rob who is attacked by the devil at night, Jana’s powerful mother who visits Jana in Venice with a super efficient personal assistant and a suitcase full of cash, or the charmingly avuncular Welshman doctor Bryn Awbrey, whose extensive knowledge of symbols and chaotic library saves the day. The novel never flags, always moving quickly, as the reader becomes engaged with the characters and eager to identify the motivations that lead to a number of superb plot twists. Dingli manages to develop Jana’s scientific, proof-based nature in perfect contrast with Rob’s faith based one, creating a tension that is mirrored by the broader context of historical scholarship against a religion that encourages belief over proof.
The setting is particularly powerful, taking the reader on a high speed chase between Italy, Malta, Syria and even Australia, showing off Dingli’s multi-cultural background and providing a rich backdrop to the story:
Damascus was a haze in the distance and sunset was coming to that part of the world, giving it a sepia tingue and turning the mountains, with their icy tops, to a muddy gold. (345)
It isn’t just the natural world that is richly described, but also the iconic places that the characters visit, from the Saydnaya convent in Damascus to the Rabat Priory in Malta, along with the many paintings and sculptures, all described with the kind of meticulous detail that helps the reader sympathise with the love that Jana has for the places and work. This is a book that reads quickly but is underpinned by a great deal of intense scholarship which is seamlessly integrated into the story. There are, at times, a few rather strained coincidences, where people just happen to be in the right place at the right time in order to tie up the plot points, but overall, According to Luke is an enjoyable read that combines exquisite writing with dramatic plotting and a very powerful, feminist theme.