Review 1728: A Sin of Omission

A Sin of Omission opens with Stephen Mzamane making a long journey to see his best friend, Albert Newnham, across the region known in the 19th century as Kaffraria on the Cape of South Africa. During this journey, the novel looks back on his life.

Picked up as a starving child in the bush by Reverend Basil Rutherford, Stephen is raised at a mission to become an Anglican priest. Once his family learns where he is, his father brings his older son, Mzamo, there too, reasoning that the boys will not succeed unless they learn to be English. The Ngqika tribe has been driven off its lands by the British, and because of a prophecy that foretold the British would leave if the people destroyed their crops and animals, his father has killed his cattle and burned his crops. Although he is an important man, he has to work on the roads to avoid starving.

The Church is making it a practice to raise the sons of important natives as British clerics in an attempt to convert the people. Both Stephen and Mzamo are intended for this program. However, Mzamo is rebellious while Stephen is dedicated and devout, so Mzamo is ejected from the program.

Stephen is eventually sent to Canterbury to be educated at the Missionary College. There, although he is a fish out of water, he becomes best friends with a fellow student, Albert Newnham. Unfortunately for this friendship, Albert eventually chooses to marry a girl who is completely unsuited to be a missionary’s wife and is racist.

Things begin to go wrong after the young men take an ill-considered shortcut so as not to be late for tea, but Stephen only begins to learn the fruits of this event when he returns to Africa. Although he still needs to pass Greek and Latin exams to become a priest, unlike his white fellows, he is given a post far from any libraries or tutors. The job he expected to get working at the missionary college with his beloved Mfundisi Turvey, principal of that college, eventually goes to Albert. Instead of being give a post together, as promised, they are separated. In fact, Stephen is alone because the nearest cleric to his post is racist.

Stephen is also no longer a part of his own people, although his brother plays a large part in his fate. The major events of this novel are initiated when he learns of his brother’s death.

This novel is partially based on the life of Stephen Mtutuko Mnyakama, a missionary of the Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity. Although it didn’t initially pull me in, I eventually found it absorbing and heart-rending. This is a novel I probably wouldn’t have discovered had it not been for my Walter Scott project.

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Review 1621: Bewildering Cares

Camilla Lacely has been asked by a friend to tell her more about her life in a letter, so she decides to keep a diary for a week. Aside from daily entries, though, this diary reads more like a first-person narrative.

Camilla is the wife of a vicar running a household on very little money, attempting to attend numerous meetings every day, and trying to help parishioners so they don’t all bother her husband with concerns as silly as what the railroad schedule is. Her cares range from how to afford a new hat to how to provide dinner for an unexpected visit by the archdeacon to how to be more attentive to her religious thoughts and prayers.

This novel is touching and amusing, although I occasionally found it bewildering. As an unreligious American from another time, I didn’t always understand the references or jokes. Because of its focus on religion, I had more difficulty with it than with other novels from this period.

The novel does have a plot. It concerns the furor of the village residents when the unbending, self-righteous curate gives a sermon preaching pacifism. Since this novel takes place in the early days of World War II and many villagers have relatives in the war, this sermon causes an uproar.

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Review 1504: The Curate’s Awakening

Thomas Wingfold is a curate who was brought up in the church but has never really considered what his beliefs are. When he is challenged by a cynical university man, George Bascombe, to prove that Christ even lived, he realizes he can’t do it. This sends him into a crisis of faith, during which he tries to form his own beliefs.

Helen Lingard is George’s cousin, a young woman who is described as someone who has never thought before. George comes to believe he can mold her thought to match his, in which case she might make a wonderful wife. However, Helen finds she needs someone to turn to when her beloved brother, Leopold, returns home in desperate trouble. After the curate begins preaching more heart-felt sermons about his search, she decides to confide in him.

This novel, written in 1876, is part of a trilogy called The Curate of Glaston, and it is meant to have a spiritual message. As such, it wasn’t a good choice for me, especially as it goes into great detail about Thomas’s conversations with his mentor and his sermons. It is perfectly readable, though, if you are interested in such a subject. I was, in fact, interested to find out what happened to Helen and Leopold, but although I tried very hard to finish this book, I couldn’t.

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Review 1360: Abide with Me

Cover for Abide with MeElizabeth Strout is known for her compassionate explorations of true-to-life characters. Set in the late 1950’s, Abide with Me explores the states of mind of Tyler Caskey, a troubled minister, and his congregation.

Tyler is in mourning for his wife, who passed away from cancer. His mother has insisted on caring for his youngest daughter, Jeanne, while his five-year-old daughter, Katherine, lives with him.

Tyler is afraid he has lost his relationship with God. He is performing his duties without joy or inspiration. Katherine is having troubles in Kindergarten, because her teacher can’t understand that she is grieving. Aside from this, Tyler only feels comfortable talking to his housekeeper, Connie, and rumors are beginning to go around.

Misunderstandings divide the minister from his congregation. Strout builds tension as the pressures upon the minister build.

This is another insightful and touching novel by Strout. In some ways, it reminded me of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, except that it doesn’t require as much erudition to understand it.

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Day 1287: In the Light of What We Know

Cover for In the Light of What We KnowIn the Light of What We Know is a novel teeming with ideas and stories. It is filled with conversations about mathematics, politics, religion, philosophy, which makes it sound intimidating. Instead, it is thought-provoking and absorbing.

The nameless narrator is an American of Pakistani descent and privileged upbringing. When the novel opens in 2008, he has been fired from his position as an investment banker and is separated from his wife. At his door appears an old friend from his school days, a man he hasn’t heard from in years. Zafar was born in Bangladesh and raised in poverty in London. But he made his way to a degree in mathematics at Oxford, becoming first an investment banker and then a human rights lawyer. Zafar has been adrift, though, and the narrator barely recognizes him when he arrives.

Although the narrator has occasional remarks to make, most of the novel is Zafar telling about his life in anecdotes and ideas that wander and are loosely connected. Gradually, then, we understand the events that trouble and particularly anger him. All along there are hints of a massive disclosure.

Occasionally, when involved in the many circumlocutions and digressions in this novel, I felt myself on the verge of irritation, but I never actually entered into it. Instead, I found it fascinating. This novel is about exile, the feeling of not belonging, and so much more. It pins itself on the story of an unhappy love affair and on deception in the wake of 9/11. It also has something to say about the financial collapse, the war between Pakistan and Bangladesh (which I didn’t know about), Afghanistan, and many other subjects.

The title is ironic, because Zafar has a fascination with Gödel’s Theorum, which says that there are things in mathematics that are true but cannot be proven to be true. The novel is about truth, knowledge, and belief. What are they, and how do they interact?

This is a novel I read for my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.

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Day 1233: History of Wolves

Cover for History of WolvesOne of the themes of History of Wolves is the horror that can result from a belief taken too far and the subservience of one person to another. This theme resonated with me very particularly because of the history of my family.

My grandmother was a Christian Scientist. She and her mother were very active in the church, and I know from reading her diary from her college years that she took it seriously. My grandfather was an Irish-American Catholic who converted to marry her.

When my mother was a baby, she got very sick. The story goes that her parents prayed over her, but her fever did not go down. Finally, according to my mother, her father said, “Bill (her name was Beulah, but he always called her Bill or Billie), we have to call a doctor.” Christian Science went out the window, and if it hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today. The main character of History of Wolves, Linda, witnesses what happens in a similar situation.

Linda is a sophomore in high school during what becomes for her a life-changing year. Several things happen that she finds sexually confusing. A teacher, Mr. Grierson, is accused of being a pedophile. Another girl accuses him of molesting her but then retracts her accusation. Linda is attracted to this girl.

Linda herself has had an unusual upbringing. When she was a child, the property where she lives in the woods of Minnesota was a commune. Linda isn’t really sure whether her parents are her parents or just two adults who were left when the commune broke up. She has a distant relationship with her mother, who pays her little attention.

Across the lake, a family moves in. When Linda makes their acquaintance, only Patra, the young mother, and her son Paul are living there. Leo, Patra’s husband, is away in Hawaii working.

Linda begins babysitting Paul. We know from the beginning of the book that Paul will die and that there will be a trial. It takes quite a bit of the book to get to this event, and I think readers will understand what is going on before Linda does.

Even for a teenager, Linda is damaged and needy. She gets a crush on Patra, and that is partially what keeps her from seeing clearly.

There is a lot going on in this novel, and it doesn’t all pan out. Still, I think the novel effectively depicts traumatic events that shape the main character’s future life. I thought the novel was sometimes confusing but also thought-provoking. I read this book for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Day 1136: The Wonder

Cover for The WonderLib Wright, a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, journeys to a small village in Ireland to take on a two-week case. Her assumption that she is being hired by a wealthy family that can afford to bring a nurse out from England turns out to be false. She has been hired by a committee to observe Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old who has reportedly not eaten for months. Her job is to make sure whether the girl is actually eating or not.

At first, Lib suspects that Anna is perpetrating a hoax, but slowly she realizes that the deeply religious girl believes she is living on manna from heaven. Still, she finds the people of the village steeped in ignorance and superstition, the local doctor incompetent, and her employers with a vested interest in a miracle. Her only confidante becomes someone she shouldn’t even be talking to—William Byrne, a journalist.

link to NetgalleyAs Anna shows unmistakable signs of starvation and imminent death, Lib eventually finds out what is going on, but no one believes her. Suspense builds as you wonder whether and how Lib will be able to save Anna.

For me, this was a surprisingly good book. I didn’t think I would enjoy it based on the subject matter, and later, I could not imagine how it would end. It has a great deal of psychological depth and often feels like a mystery.

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Day 1105: Fludd

Cover for FluddAll of Hilary Mantel’s writing has some sort of edge, but I’m beginning to feel that I enjoy more her work that isn’t quite as satirical, her historical fiction, for example, as opposed to some of her earlier, blacker works. Fludd was written in 1989 and fits firmly into the latter category.

Mantel’s note states that she depicts a 1950’s-ish Catholic church that never existed, but having read her memoir, I would venture to say that there are seeds of her childhood both in the setting and in her depiction of the church.

Father Angwin is a well-meaning, old-fashioned sort of priest working in an ugly church stuffed with statues of saints in a dismal working-class town called Fetherhoughton. He has long ago lost his faith, but he is struggling along as best he can. The bishop, whom he calls His Corpulence, wants him to make the church more “relevant:” modernize the service and get rid of the saints. He also says he is sending Father Angwin a curate.

Although Father Angwin thinks the people need the saints, he reluctantly buries them in the church yard. Shortly thereafter, a man appears at the door of the presbytery whom everyone assumes is the curate. People find themselves confiding their innermost secrets to him. He never seems to eat, but his food disappears. No one can recall his face when he’s not there.

Sister Philomena is a young Irish nun in the convent. She was evicted from her Irish convent because her mother claimed her skin rash was stigmata, and she went along with it. Her days are tormented by Mother Perpetua, the terror of the convent. She also finds herself confiding in Fludd.

But who is Fludd? Is he the curate, a demon, an angel? In any case, he’s an agent for change.

I don’t think I understand Catholicism, or indeed any religion, well enough to grasp the theological issues or even everything Mantel is poking fun at. I think this novel would be a much more pointed weapon if read by a lapsed Catholic. Mantel claims to have seen a demon, and demons lurk throughout her work. This is a funny but peculiar one.

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Day 1009: The Miracle on Monhegan Island

Cover for The Miracle on Monhegan IslandI enjoyed Elizabeth Kelly’s The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, so I was pleased to find she had written another novel. I felt a further pleasure in store because of its setting. Ever since I found online a map of the island with links and information about rental cottages, I’ve dreamed of renting a cottage on Monhegan Island.

I didn’t count on the dog, though. This novel is narrated by a Pekingese named Ned, a truly intelligent Pekingese with lots of insight to offer. I could almost buy this approach in The Art of Racing in the Rain, but not quite. Here, I didn’t buy it at all.

Ned is stolen from the back of his car by Spark Monahan, who takes him as a gift for his son Hally, whom he hasn’t seen in four years. Hally has been living on Monhegan Island with Spark’s father Pastor Ragnar and his brother Hugh.

Spark is the family black sheep, but Ragnar has recently also run into trouble. He was in charge of a concert on the island, but his security wasn’t able to handle the number of people who tried to attend it for free. Now he is being sued for proceeds that were never collected from the people who got in without paying. He is the pastor of a church he basically invented and has the ambition to be a cult leader.

Hally is just beginning to find out some of the secrets of his family, and he finds them upsetting. One day when he is off by himself, he returns claiming to have seen and spoken to the Virgin Mary. Pastor Ragnar latches on to this event and starts trying to make the most of it, while Hugh and Spark more or less passively object. At a second event, people attending claim to see odd effects in the sunlight, and soon Hally is receiving national attention.

Spark and Hugh know that Hally’s mother was mentally ill when she died, so they are worried about Hally. But no one actually does anything to stop Ragnar.

Aside from the problems of the narration, Kelly leaves nothing unsaid. The dog is always pointing things out to you in case you missed them. At the same time her focus is all over the place. There are discussions about religion and faith, mental illness, inheritance, celebrity. The characters, the most interesting part of the novel, sometimes get lost in the baggage.

Also, I missed the darker overtones of the previous novel. Although this novel provides plenty of dark overtones, it lands solidly in the feel-good zone by the end, which for me is not necessarily a good thing.

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Day 554: The Testament of Mary

Cover for The Testament of MaryIt is years after the crucifixion. Mary is living a quiet life in Ephesus, visited by two of her son’s disciples. It is clear their visits are unwelcome, as they have been trying to force her memories to agree with the documents they’re writing. But Mary has always seen her son’s followers as men with something lacking in them, and she insists on telling her her own truths.

This provocative novella takes the position that Mary was not a believer but was simply trying to save her son from his fate. She grieves his loss and regrets that at the end her courage failed her. While the disciples try to place her and Mary (Toíbín does not name anyone Mary Magdalene, but that is whom he means, I assume) at the grave witnessing a resurrection, they were actually fleeing for their own lives.

While the novella seems to accept some of the miracles, the raising of Lazarus is more of a horror than a wonder. Mary also notices that the jugs of water are brought forward quickly at the wedding at Cana and that only one of them was opened beforehand. Toíbín evokes an atmosphere of feverish excitement and hard fanaticism during these scenes, wherein both Jesus’ enemies and his followers push her son toward his fate.

This novella, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is thought-provoking in its exploration of cult-like origins for Christianity and the shaping of Christian myth after Jesus’ death. As always with Toíbín, it is meticulously and beautifully written.