Still on the subject of portrayals of conservative Christian faith in mainstream literature — but on a very different note from the last book reviewed — comes Sweet Jesus, by Canadian writer Christine Pountney. This novel tells the stories of three siblings — twenty-two year old Zeus (short for Jesus), a young gay man who makes his living as a therapeutic clown in a children’s hospital, and Zeus’s two older adoptive sisters Connie and Hannah (their parents adopted Zeus as a child after discovering him while on a mission trip). Connie is living a highly respectable, church-going, married-with-children suburban life while Hannah, a writer, is more of a free spirit and is currently in a relationship with a man she loves who does not share her desire to have a child. As the story opens, each of the three siblings is at a crossroads: Zeus’s partner dies of cancer; Connie discovers her apparently reliable husband has gambled away everything they own; Hannah considers breaking up with her partner. Connie’s desire to visit a spiritual life centre in Kansas where her mother once found hope and healing coincides with Zeus’s desire to find his birth parents (also in the US) and Hannah’s desire to just get away for awhile and think things through. These three very diverse siblings set out on a road trip, each seeking his or her own kind of salvation.
The writing here is absolutely beautiful; the characters are minutely observed. Point of view shifts between each of the three main characters, with shorter sections coming from the points of view of Connie’s husband, Hannah’s partner, and Ruth, the mother of the three siblings. In general, the religious element is handled well, with both faith and doubt treated respectfully. I realize I’m hyper-sensitive to how religious characters are treated in literary fiction, but I did have a problem at first with Connie, the only religiously observant one of the three siblings: I thought she was, in the beginning, the least believable character. Pountney puts religious-sounding words in Connie’s mouth that did not ring true to me: I’ve spent my entire life around a wide variety of Christians from many different backgrounds and have never heard anyone utter a sentence like: “Yes, yes, I know; it’s moral scrupulousness that ensures the resurrection of the flesh,” which Connie says (apparently without irony) early in the novel.
However, my Connie-related problems fell away as I read on and she became more real and rounded to me. In general, my only quibble with this beautifully-written book was that it took awhile (more than a third of the way through the novel) before I felt emotionally engaged with the characters; when I did, I wanted more and it felt like the book ended too quickly. As is so often the case, I think this may be more a limitation of me as a reader than of Pountney as a writer, so I’ll conclude by saying that this book tells an interesting story very well, with lovely use of language, and I recommend it highly to lovers of literary fiction.