The Shoe of the Roof is a thought-provoking read about faith and the thin line between madness and reality. It begins with med student Thomas Rosanoff’s plan to win back his girlfriend. His girlfriend’s brother Sebastian is confined to a psychiatric institution because he believes he is the son of God, and Thomas decides that if he cures Sebastian, his girlfriend will fall back in love with him.
How does one go about convincing someone that he isn’t actually Jesus? Thomas’ hypothesis is that if he introduces Sebastian to two other men who claim to be Jesus, they will sort out among themselves that three Jesuses can’t exist all at once, and so at least two of them will have to cure themselves of their delusion.
It makes an odd kind of sense, and as I learn from one of the characters in the book, there’s precedence for this kind of cure, as it worked in the past for two women who both believed they were the Virgin Mary (the older one eventually acquiesced to the younger one’s claim). However, things don’t quite go as planned, and Thomas ends up with all three men claiming to be Jesus — Sebastian, a screaming patient named Eli and a homeless man who did street magic — living in his apartment. Things escalate further when Thomas’ father, a psychiatrist who conducted psychiatric experiments on Thomas as a child, gets involved with a much more heavy-handed approach at a cure.
The title is taken from an anecdote cited in the book, where a person claims to have had an out of body experience, and mentions seeing a shoe on the roof, which doctors realize wasn’t at all visible from the vantage point of their physical body. It is this interplay of faith and reality that makes Shoe on the Roof so powerful a read. We know none of the three men claiming to be Jesus actually are Jesus, but that doesn’t automatically mean they should all be dismissed as madmen. The ethics of Thomas’ experiment are questionable, but it’s nothing compared to the cruelty of his father’s cure.
Thomas’ approach is to reason with all three men, for example, arguing that Eli couldn’t be Jesus because he was born in Connecticut, which wasn’t at all mentioned in the Bible. (The way the three men prove him wrong on this is probably the funniest part of the novel.) It’s an approach that in turn allows us to hear the men’s perspectives, and why they’re convinced that they are Jesus. I admit that my Catholic background played some part in my reading of this book, as a part of me wondered if any of the men (likely the street magician) would end up being, if not Jesus himself, at least a Jesus figure who opens Thomas’ eyes to the possibility of faith.
While this didn’t quite happen, I think Ferguson’s more secular take actually formed a much more compelling argument than I had expected. It’s not so much that their belief in their being Jesus is harmless as that it is actually harm reducing. There’s a heartbreaking moment where one of the men observes that without this delusion, the others would be left with nothing to live for. Ultimately, we almost want them to have the freedom to hold on to this delusion, if indeed their madness is so much more compelling than their reality.
This becomes especially true with Thomas’ father comes on board, and deploys torture techniques (starvation, sleep deprivation, videos with disturbing content on loop) to get the three men to recant their claim. His assertion that behaviour will lead to belief has merit, but his methods are seriously messed up, and these chapters are actually difficult to read as I wanted nothing more than for Thomas to break the men free.
The flashbacks about Thomas’ childhood are equally disturbing, and I can’t believe his father wasn’t arrested for how he treated his child. There’s a memory that teases at the edges of Thomas’ mind, of a piece of choral music that he feels is linked to his mother but isn’t quite sure how. The moment where he learns the truth is utterly heartbreaking.
Overall, this is a powerful and compelling book that forces you to reconsider what madness is, and how a insidious a ‘cure’ can be.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.