Briarley (Aster Glenn Gray)

Paperback copy of 'Briarley' by Aster Glenn Gray, in a rosebush.

The books that I add to my LGBTQ Christian fiction recommendations don’t usually get their own posts, but this one felt almost as if it was written especially for me. Which is not something that I thought I’d ever say about a Beauty and the Beast retelling, but here we are. (Nothing against fairy tale retellings; it’s just that I haven’t happened to read one since rereading Adèle Géras’ Egerton Hall series, over a decade ago now. I shouldn’t have got rid of my copy. Actually, it occurs to me now that The Tower Room is what introduced me to St John of the Cross, so perhaps there’s a connection after all.)

Anyway, it’s 1940, the father is a country parson and Great War veteran, the daughter is a nurse, and the beast is a dragon. The parson (his name is Edward Harper, but the narrative mostly calls him ‘the parson’) does the rose-stealing thing, but refuses to let the dragon abduct his daughter, on the grounds that a) she has her war work to be doing; b) it’s wrong to punish the daughter for the father’s misdeeds; c) if the dragon needs to be freed from his enchantment by the power of love then it’s the parson’s Christian duty; d) 1 Corinthians 13.

That’s not how you learn to love, not at all. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it does not kidnap –

One thing that I’d forgotten in all my years of not really reading retellings was that what’s interesting is not what the story does, it’s how it does it. It’s the setting; it’s the twists; it’s the characterisation. We all know where we’re going, but the journey might be surprising. In this case it was a very good surprise.

The portrayal of wartime rural England wasn’t bad at all; the enchanted house stuff was all in line with the fairy tale. More to the point, from my point of view, was that there was a real sense of theological literacy, and that was refreshing. I only put books on my recs post if they get to a point where they acknowledge the possible coexistence of Christianity and queerness within one individual, but several of them never get much beyond a superficial (and often borderline antisemitic) rebuttal of Leviticus 18 (“but prawns!!!”). This one felt much more comfortable in its arguments. It helped that one of the main characters had already done the thinking, yes, but it went beyond that. I very much got the sense of faith and/or religion as something in which these characters lived and thought. There’s a throwaway reference to David and Jonathan and a long-running, sophisticated riff on hospitality and the sin of Sodom. (Had OT scholarship got that far by 1940? I’m not sure, but it works in the book, which tends to rely on experience rather than scholarship.) There’s a committed, personal, engaged wrestling with 1 Corinthians 6. And this was true for the minor characters, too: I particularly liked the moment when one of the servants (invisible, not transfigured into household objects, in this version) responds to a “doubting Thomas” reference with, “Ma’am, I haven’t spear wounds you can probe.” Ownership of scripture isn’t restricted to the clergy here. This inhabiting of a common religious inheritance never felt heavy-handed or out of character, but it was always taken seriously.

One thing that was missing was the immersion in the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version, such as you’d find in Streatfeild or Sayers or other mid twentieth century British authors writing about this sort of milieu. This didn’t bother me on the first read (straight through, last night) but struck me when I was thinking about it this morning. The 1 Corinthians 13 bit, for example: really it should have been ‘Charity kidnappeth not.’ But that would have rather undermined the lovely quibble on the different sorts of love (of course the enchantment is picky about the sort of love required to break it) and so I’ll let it off.

Other nitpicks: there was a moment towards the end of the book that didn’t quite sit right with me, but I don’t want to spoil it so I won’t talk about it. Only one out-of-place Americanism (a “gotten”) tripped me up. There was a cricketing detail that felt slightly off, but may well have been plausible for the mid nineteenth century; I have no idea. Finally I was a bit worried about the parson’s poor neglected parishioners, but he did at least feel bad about neglecting his duty (unlike some fictional clergy we could mention), and had a reasonable excuse.

This is a short book – 165 pages in the paperback edition. I would have loved to read more of the parson’s backstory, but at the same time it felt like exactly the right length; we knew as much as we needed to. And it meant that I could finish it at a reasonable hour and might read it all over again tonight; who knows?

Anyway, if you like my stuff and you like dragons you’ll probably like this one. Very much recommended.

Briarley

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