Now we go straight from my review of a book by a favourite author that I’d been eagerly anticipating and absolutely loved, to a book by an author I’d never heard of, only picked up because it was being discussed in an online book club and looked sort of interesting … which I also absolutely loved. Going straight from Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Quest to Catherine Fox’s Acts and Omissions was like going from a wonderful vacation in a beautiful spot to another vacation in a completely different spot — like going from the beach to the mountains, or vice versa. The only shared elements were that I read both books ravenously and far too quickly, and all I wanted in either case when I was done was an unobtainable sequel (unobtainable in Hobb’s case because it’s not been written yet and in Fox’s because although it’s written and published I can’t get hold of it in my country yet!).
But enough of my reading adventures: what about the actual book?
Catherine Fox is attempting, pretty transparently I think, to do for the twenty-first century Church of England what Anthony Trollope did in the nineteenth-century with his Barchester novels: use the Church and its clergy as the setting for a series of novels featuring a wide variety of characters living through ordinary and earth-shattering moments. I both laughed aloud and cried genuine tears while reading Acts and Omissions, which is set in and around the fictional Lindchester Cathedral and explores the lives of a large group of characters over the course of a calendar (and church) year.
Right off the top, one thing I know some readers won’t like about this book is the narrative voice. Acts and Omissions features not only an omniscient narrator, but a very intrusive one who addresses the reader directly and comments on the actions of the characters — who, in other words, tells as well as shows in the way that was quite acceptable for novelists of Trollope’s era but that fell out of favour in the twentieth century (though now that we’re all postmodern and meta, the voice of the intrusive narrator is having its day again). Dickens, Trollope, Austin, all the nineteenth century novelists used this voice, and some readers of today will find it jarring (or will not mind the device but will find the slightly snarky voice of this particular narrator annoying; I don’t, but I understand why some people do). I’m reminded most of Thackery and the closing lines of Vanity Fair: “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.” Fox, like those nineteenth-century novelists, never lets us forget that we are reading a novel about fictional characters — yet somehow the characters come to life of their own accord and leap off the page as real people who can make us laugh and cry (see my note above about laughing and crying).
There are several levels on which to enjoy this book, which I’ll categorize as the Anglican Level, the Christian Level, and the General Human Being Level. There’s obviously a lot of rich material here for Anglicans, especially those familiar with church hierarchies and politics, and despite the narrator’s best attempts to make some of this clear to the rest of us, a lot of this will just sail over the heads of readers like me who are not members of the Anglican church. This is OK; I don’t mind inside jokes and references, since that’s part of why I read — to catch glimpses into other worlds and other subcultures. So when the narrator assures us, before introducing the wonderful character of the Archdeacon Matt, that we will of course have certain preconceptions in our head as soon as she says “the Archdeacon” — well, no, of course I don’t; I haven’t got the faintest clue what an Archdeacon is or does, and thus have no idea of the stereotypes about Archdeacons. But I’m OK with that.
I read this book accepting the hardcore Church of England business as I would accept a lot of the details in a novel set among cannibal tribes on a remote Pacific island — I don’t understand it, but it’s interesting to read about. Where the novel touched me most deeply was on what I’ll call the Christian level — because apart from the machinations of a particular church culture, this is a novel about hope, faith and redemption; about the ways we try to be better people and often tragically fail; about how our religious faith can both help us along that path and sometimes, for some of us, be the stumbling block that makes us fall.
The novel has, as I’ve said, a huge cast of characters and the narrator dips in and out of their lives, but the central conflict of the story focuses mainly on Paul Henderson, the Bishop of Lindchester, his wife Susanna, and a troubled young man named Freddie May who they’ve taken to live in their home for a few months. The personal struggles of these characters and a host of others are set against the bigger-world backdrop of the Church of England’s struggle with the issue of same-sex marriage, significant to this story because Paul is a fairly conservative bishop who opposes same-sex marriage but has, of course, gay clergy and gay parishioners in his care, as well as a large number of more liberal colleagues who completely disagree with his stance. The political becomes very personal by the end of the novel, not just for Bishop Paul but for many others.
This is not a “Christian novel” in the sense that you’d expect to find it on the shelves of a Christian bookstore where you can be guaranteed no swear words, no sex, and a Jesus-driven resolution to every conflict by the last page. But it is a deeply Christian novel in the sense that it is about real people struggling with the real issues of living a life of faith (or avoiding doing so, as not every character in the book is a professed Christian). While I think this is a human enough and interesting enough story to be enjoyed on the General Human Being Level by readers who are not particularly interested in questions of faith, I feel like it’s written primarily for people who do see the big (and little) struggles of human life playing out on the bigger canvas that contains God, hope, redemption, sin and salvation. While this book may not be everyone’s cup of tea it was absolutely mine: I fell in love with almost every character (even the unlikable ones) and cannot wait to spend more time in Lindchester. If only I can get my hands on that sequel!