André Alexis states that his intention for this novel was to write a modern pastoral. If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s not surprising, for pastoral literature hasn’t been popular for hundreds of years. A pastoral is a work about life in the country, sometimes comparing it to life in the city, showing the pleasures of a simpler existence.
Alexis tells us explicitly, though, that his protagonist, Father Christopher Pennant, expects the rural town of Barrow, Ontario, to be simple but finds it is not. Indeed, events force him through a crisis of faith.
Father Pennant is a little disappointed by his posting to his first parish of Barrow but is determined to do a good job. There he meets a young woman, Liz Denny, who has just discovered her fiancé is sleeping with another woman. Another parishioner with a problem is Father Pennant’s caretaker, Lowther Williams, 62 and certain he will die at 63. He has set Father Pennant a test to determine if he is the proper person to attend to his affairs after his death.
This is an unusual novel and I’m not quite sure what I think of it. Although I enjoyed Father Pennant’s journey, his conclusions about faith are not definitive and we’re not sure where he will end up. I was also interested in whether Liz would decide to marry Rob after all.
The novel takes place in an indefinite time period that could be any time from the 50’s on. If it is in the present, the town seems old-fashioned. A detail that struck me as odd is that at least three characters keep prayer books with them, and these characters are not religious. Now, things could be different in rural Canada, but as far as I know, I have never even seen a prayer book outside church and don’t know anyone who has one. So, I had to wonder whether something was meant by it.
The descriptions of nature are truly gorgeous. Father Pennant spends more and more of his time exploring it and wonders during his struggles if the study of nature may not be enough for anyone. The novel is written with a gentle humor and sense of irony, and the language is truly lyrical at times.
By the way, my copy is an expensively produced paperback, very nicely printed on thick, high-quality paper. Unfortunately, the last 8 or 10 pages are out of order, which was momentarily confusing.