[Note: A shortened, edited version of this review appeared in the June 15th, 2018 issue of the Church Times.]
Proctor McCullough isn’t a churchgoer. He’s not even particularly religious. Yet somehow he senses that God is calling him to build a chapel, with a little house beside it, on a cliff in the southwest of England. It’s a source of bewilderment for his partner, Holly, and their London friends. Is Mac mentally ill, or having a particularly acute midlife crisis? He’s handed off from a minister to a therapist to a neurologist, but no one knows what to make of him. This forty-four-year-old father of two, an otherwise entirely rational-seeming advisor to the government on disaster situations, won’t be deterred from his mission.
It’s important to get a sense of the way this character speaks:
I want a structure that will move people to contemplate something other than all the obvious stuff … to be confronted with a sense of something and only be able to define it as Other.
God is the transcendent Other for whom creation, what we know as life, is a gratuitous act of love, a dispossession of a portion of His infinite creativity given over to our thriving. It is a gift from His infinite excess. That we can know Him at all is because of the possibility of this excess within us, which we experience as love, art, great feats of the mind. Our bounty is Him.
Down at the project site, Mac acquires four young workers/disciples: Rebecca, Nathaniel, Terry and Rich. Rebecca is a sarcastic, voluptuous teenager who will be off to Cambridge in a few months. She perhaps represents vanity, temptation and judgment, while the other three are more difficult to slot into symbolic roles. Terry is a dreadlocked lager lout who takes care of a mother with early dementia; contrary to appearances, he’s also a thinker, and takes to carrying around a Bible along with a collection of other theological works. Nat and Rich are more sketch-like figures, just ciphers really, which became problematic for me later on.
With Mac we shuttle between the building site and his home in London for weeks at a time. The idea of incorporating Pascal’s mystical hexagon into the church design captivates him, and the costs – initially set at £100,000 – balloon. Meanwhile, his relationship with Holly is strained almost to the breaking point as they each turn to alternative confidants, and there’s a renegotiation process as they decide whether their actions have torn them apart for good.
Like Sarah Moss, Neil Griffiths realistically blends serious concepts with everyday domestic tasks: sure, there may be a God-ordained chapel to build, but Mac also has to do the shopping and get his six-year-old twins fed and in bed at a decent hour. If Mac is meant to be a Messiah figure here, he’s a deeply flawed one; he can even be insufferable, especially when delivering his monologues on religion. If you’re like me, you’ll occasionally get incensed with him – particularly when, at the midpoint, he concocts a Clintonian justification for his behavior.
All the same, the themes and central characters were strong enough to keep me powering through this 600-page novel of ideas. Mac’s violent encounters with God and with the nature of evil are compelling, and although some of the events of the last third push the boundaries of credibility, it’s worth sticking with it to see where Griffiths takes the plot. There’s no getting past the fact that this is a dense theological treatise, but overlaid on it is a very human story of incidental families and how love sustains us through the unbearable.
If I had to point to the novel’s forebears, I’d mention Hamlet, A.S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden, Michael Arditti’s Easter, and even Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. If you’ve read any Dostoevsky (I haven’t, yet) or Iris Murdoch, you’ll likely spot philosophical echoes. The title itself is from Wallace Stevens. It’s all unabashedly highbrow, and a greater than average familiarity with the Christian tradition is probably key. For the wary, I’d suggest not trying too hard to read metaphorical significance into character names or chapter and section titles – I’m sure those meanings are in there, but better to let the story carry you along rather than waste time trying to work it all out.
While reading this novel I was bitterly regretting the demise of Third Way magazine; it would have been a perfect place for me to engage with Griffiths’ envelope-pushing theology. I was also wishing I was still involved with Greenbelt Festival’s literature programming, as this would make a perfect Big Read. (Though however would we get people to read 600 pages?! In my experience of book clubs, it’s hard enough to get them to read 200.)
I’m grateful to Dodo Ink (“an independent UK publisher publishing daring and difficult fiction”) for stepping into the breach and taking a chance on a book that will divide Christians and the nonreligious alike, and to publicist Nicci Praça for the surprise copy that turned up on my doorstep. This turned out to be just my sort of book: big and brazen, a deep well of thought that will only give up its deeper meanings upon discussion and repeat readings.
As a God Might Be was published in the UK by Dodo Ink on October 26th. This is Neil Griffiths’ third novel, after Betrayal in Naples (2004) and Saving Caravaggio (2006). He says that this most recent book took him seven years to write.
The houseguests have gone home, the Christmas tree is coming down tomorrow, and it’s darned cold. I’m feeling stuck in a rut in my career, the blog, and so many other areas of life. It’s hard not to think of 2017 as a huge stretch of emptiness with very few bright spots. All I want to do is sit around in my new fuzzy bathrobe and read under the cat. Luckily, I’ve had some great books to accompany me through the Christmas period and have finished five so far this year.
I thought I’d continue the habit of writing two-sentence reviews (or maybe no more than three), except when I’m writing proper full-length reviews on assignment or for blog tours or other websites. Granted, they’re usually long and multi-part sentences, and this isn’t actually a time-saving trick – as Blaise Pascal once said, “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one” – but it feels like good discipline.
So here’s some mini-reviews of what I’ve been reading in late December and early January:
The Dark Flood Rises, Margaret Drabble
The “dark flood” is D.H. Lawrence’s metaphor for death, and here it corresponds to busy seventy-something Fran’s obsession with last words, obituaries and the search for the good death as many of her friends and acquaintances succumb – but also to literal flooding in the west of England and (dubious, this) to mass immigration of Asians and Africans into Europe. This is my favorite of the five Drabble books that I’ve read – it’s closest in style and tone to her sister A.S. Byatt as well as to Tessa Hadley, and the themes of old age and life’s randomness are strong – even though there seem to be too many characters and the Canary Islands subplot mostly feels like an unnecessary distraction. (Public library)
Hogfather, Terry Pratchett
In Discworld belief causes imagined beings to exist, so when a devious plot to control children’s minds results in a dearth of belief in the Hogfather, the Fat Man temporarily disappears and Death has to fill in for him on this Hogswatch night. I laughed aloud a few times while reading this clever Christmas parody, but I had a bit of trouble following the plot and grasping who all the characters were given that this was my first Discworld book; in general I’d say that Pratchett is another example of British humor that I don’t entirely appreciate (along with Monty Python and Douglas Adams) – he’s my husband’s favorite, but I doubt I’ll try another of his books. (Own copy)
Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting
In a reprise of childhood holidays that inevitably headed northwest, Bunting takes a series of journeys around the Hebrides and weaves together her contemporary travels with the religion, folklore and history of this Scottish island chain, an often sad litany of the Gaels’ poverty and displacement that culminated with the brutal Clearances. Rather than giving an exhaustive survey, she chooses seven islands to focus on and tells stories of unexpected connections – Orwell’s stay on Jura, Lord Leverhulme’s (he of Port Sunlight and Unilever) purchase of Lewis, and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s landing on Eriskay – as she asks how geography influences history and what it truly means to belong to a place. (Public library)
Cobwebs and Cream Teas: A Year in the Life of a National Trust House, Mary Mackie
Mackie’s husband was Houseman and then Administrator at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk in the 1980s – live-in roles that demanded a wide range of skills and much more commitment than the usual 9 to 5 (when he borrowed a pedometer he learned that he walked 15 miles in the average day, without leaving the house!). Her memoir of their first year at Felbrigg proceeds chronologically, from the intense cleaning and renovations of the winter closed season through to the following Christmas’ festivities, and takes in along the way plenty of mishaps and visitor oddities. It will delight anyone who’d like a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a historic home. (Own copy)
The Bridge Ladies: A Memoir, Betsy Lerner
When life unexpectedly took the middle-aged Lerner back to her hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, she spent several years sitting in on her mother’s weekly bridge games to learn more about these five Jewish octogenarians who have been friends for 50 years and despite their old-fashioned reserve have seen each other through the loss of careers, health, husbands and children. Although Lerner also took bridge lessons herself, this is less about the game and more about her ever-testy relationship with her mother (starting with her rebellious teenage years), the ageing process, and the ways that women of different generations relate to their family and friends. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that every mother and daughter should read this; I plan to shove it in my mother’s and sister’s hands the next time I’m in the States. (Own copy)
Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite
Guite chooses well-known poems (by Christina Rossetti, John Donne, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge et al.) as well as more obscure contemporary ones as daily devotional reading between the start of Advent and Epiphany; I especially liked his sonnet sequence in response to the seven “O Antiphons.” His commentary is learned and insightful, and even if at times I thought he goes into too much in-depth analysis rather than letting the poems speak for themselves, this remains a very good companion to the Christmas season for any poetry lover. (E-book from NetGalley)
I started too many books over Christmas and have sort of put six of them on hold – including Titus Groan, which I’m thinking of quitting (it takes over 50 pages for one servant to tell another that the master has had a son?!), and City on Fire, which is wonderful but dispiritingly long: even after two good sessions with it in the days after Christmas, I’ve barely made a dent.
However, the three books that I am actively reading I’m loving: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis is an uproarious blend of time travel science fiction and Victorian pastiche (university library), Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a compulsive historical saga set in Korea (ARC from NetGalley), and the memoir Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear has been compared to H Is for Hawk in the way she turns to birdwatching to deal with depression (e-book from Edelweiss). I also will be unlikely to resist my e-galley of the latest Anne Lamott book, Hallelujah Anyway (forthcoming in April, ARC from Edelweiss), for much longer.
Meanwhile, in post-holiday charity shopping I scored six books for £1.90: one’s been tucked away as a present for later in the year; the Ozeki I’ve already read, but it’s a favorite so I’m glad to own it; and the rest are new to me. I look forward to trying Han Kang; Anne Tyler is a reliable choice for a cozy read; and the Hobbs sounds like a wonderful Victorian-set novel.
All in all, I seem to be starting my year in books as I mean to go on: reading a ton; making sure I review most or all of the books, even if I write just a few sentences; maintaining a balance between my own books, library books, and recent or advance NetGalley/Edelweiss reads; and failing to restrain myself from buying more.
Now if I could just work on my general attitude…
How’s the reading year starting off for you?
Following up on the handful of low-key resolutions I made at the start of the month, I can report that three of my volunteer reviewing positions plus a paid one all seem to have come to a natural end, so that frees me up a little more to seek out big-name opportunities and focus on reading more of the unread books in my own collection plus library copies of books by the authors I’m most keen to try.
Now that nearly one twelfth of this ‘new’ year has passed, I feel like it’s time to set some more specific goals for 2016.
Be more strategic about which books I review in full on here. So far it’s just been a random smattering of books I requested online or through publishers. Overall, I don’t feel like I have a clear rationale for which books I feature here and which ones I just respond to via Goodreads. Perhaps I’ll focus on notable reading experiences I feel like drawing attention to (like The Goldfinch recently), or target some pre-release literary fiction to help create buzz.
Start writing more concise reviews. The task of writing just two sentences about my top books from 2015 got me thinking that sometimes less might be more. (See Shannon’s Twitter-length reviews!) Ironically, though, dumping a whole bunch of thoughts about a book can feel easier and less time-consuming than crafting one tight paragraph. As Blaise Pascal said, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
Redesign this blog and get lots of advice from other book bloggers on how to develop it. It’s my one-year anniversary coming up in March and I want to think about what direction to take the site in. I feel like I need to find a niche rather than just post at random.
Update my social media profiles and pictures. In some cases I’m still using photos taken of me nearly three years ago. Not that I’ve changed too much in appearance since then, but I might as well stay current!
Make it through my backlog of giveaway books. In the photo below, the books on the left I won through Goodreads giveaways, and the pile on the right I won through various other giveaways, usually through Twitter or publisher newsletters.
Although there is no strict compulsion to review the books you win, it’s an informal obligation I’d like to honor. Before too many months go by, then, I’d like to read and review them all. That’ll help me meet the next goal…
Get down to 100 or fewer unread books in the flat by the end of the year. Although this seems like an achievable goal, it does mean getting through about 100 of the books we own, on top of any review books that come up throughout the year, not to mention my Kindle backlog from NetGalley and Edelweiss (so I am definitely NOT counting those in the 100!).
Weed our bookshelves. Alas, it’s looking like we’re going to be moving again in August, so before then it would be great if I could reduce our overflow areas so that everything can fit on our four matching bookcases with little or no double-stacking. I’ll start by picking out the books I’ve already read and don’t think I’ll read or refer to again. Which brings me to a related goal…
Start a Little Free Library or make another arrangement for giving away proof copies. Advanced copies technically should not be resold, so ones I don’t want to keep I tend to give away to friends and family or to a thrift store if they don’t too obviously look like proofs (i.e. they have a finished cover and don’t say “Proof copy” in enormous letters). I figure if a charity shop can get £1 for the copy, why not? It’s a perfectly good, readable book. However, I should really come up with a better solution. If not an LFL, then maybe I could arrange to keep a giveaway box outside a charity shop or at the train station wherever we next live.
Take control of my e-mail inboxes. There are currently over 11,000 messages in my personal account and nearly 1,100 in my professional account. I attribute this partly to sentimentality and partly to fear of deleting something important I might need to reference later.
Find a way to incorporate exercise into my workday. I really, really need a treadmill desk. Or any piece of exercise equipment with a ledge that would hold a Kindle or laptop. That way I could continue reading and writing so that working out wouldn’t feel like lost time. Otherwise I am far too sedentary in my normal life.
What are some of your updated goals for 2016 – reading-related or otherwise?