I read this in Truro, where we were staying above a pub. I started it in bed, and finished it in the beer garden, with the gentle sound of a little river running past, and the cathedral towering up above the trees, just the other side.
And I was thinking what a pity it is that Susan Howatch, who when she was writing wrote about unconventional clergy relationships like nobody else, never got round to the Bensons.
There are a few plausible reasons why not, of course. Firstly, I’m not sure that anybody would believe in the Bensons if they appeared in a novel. They’re really quite incredible in real life. (Edward White Benson was the first Bishop of Truro – this was why they were on my mind – and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. He proposed to his wife when she was twelve. After his death she set up home with the daughter of a different Archbishop of Canterbury. All the children were as queer as their mother, in every sense. No need to bolt invented polyamory onto the facts here. But even Susan Howatch might not have got away with the Bensons.) Secondly, she writes very heterosexual books. So she was probably never going to take on the Bensons.
Anyway, I was in the mood for something that took a queer, religious, character, that took both the queerness and the religion seriously, and was prepared to delve deep into the psyche of that character.
In This Small Spot hit that, er, spot about eighty per cent of the time.
This isn’t anything like a Howatch. It doesn’t have the snobbery, the psychics, or the daddy issues. And it isn’t so tediously straight. It does have the ‘can’t do anything, got to finish this book’ thing that Howatch manages to do over and over again; which is why I had to finish it in a pub beer garden before we could see any more of Truro. And it was almost but not quite exactly what I wanted.
“Here, the true you is most often magnified, for better or for worse.”Abbess Theodora
In a world increasingly connected to computers and machines but disconnected to self and others, Dr. Michele Stewart finds herself drowning in a life that no longer holds meaning. Searching for a deeper connection after losing her partner, Alice, she enters a contemplative monastery, living a life dedicated to prayer, to faith in things unseen. Though most of her family and friends are convinced that she has become a nun to run away from her life, she finds herself more attuned to life than she has been in years. Stripped of the things that define most people in the outside world – career, clothing, possessions – she rediscovers a long forgotten part of herself. But sooner than she expects, the outside world intrudes, forcing her to confront doubts and demons she thought she had left behind. The ultimate test of her vocation comes from the unlikeliest source when she finds herself falling in love again. As she struggles to discern where she belongs, she discovers the terrifying truth of Abbess Theodora’s warning. For better or for worse.
I don’t think I’d argue with anything in that blurb. I bought the book on the strength of it, and I wasn’t disappointed. It wouldn’t be getting its own post if I hadn’t enjoyed it. The calm rhythm of the religious life, the complex relationships between the novices, the developing tension between Sister Michele and another nun, made for an absorbing read. It wasn’t perfect, though, and there were a couple of things that left me wanting to argue.
Firstly, the pacing was a bit off, or the plot. An overuse of ‘Later, Mickey would…’ built up a suspense that was never quite delivered on. Things developed sequentially, one event leading to another, and tending to evolve from characters’ desires and personalities. This suited the setting, but there sometimes seemed to be a reluctance to commit at key points. I said above that I was looking for something that would delve deeply into a character’s psyche. I think that often it didn’t delve deeply enough.
At one point Mickey reflects that the enclosed nature of the abbey makes trivial events take on an inflated importance. Actually, I found the opposite to be true: there would have been space to take much more time to explore the personality clashes and emerging trauma that grew from and drove events.
And then it takes an unexpected turn into melodrama.
Major spoilers follow the picture of Truro cathedral.
Mickey sustains serious injuries rescuing her love interest from a fire, a combination of events which results in both of them asking to be released from their vows. Mickey returns to medical life. Having both taken time to reflect, the two of them set up house together.
And very shortly afterwards Mickey dies.
In fairness, it didn’t strike me as a stereotypical ‘bury your gays’. There was too much of a sense of the bigger picture for that. The happy ending had already been earned and obtained; in fact, I’d have been perfectly contented had the book ended just a few chapters earlier. What we got, however, was an ambitious ending, and one that I don’t think the author managed to pull off. She didn’t quite earn Anselma/Lauren’s revelation that ‘The tragedy would have been never to have known her at all’. It might have worked, given some more space; as it was, it felt glib.
It was intensely readable, however, and I’ll be buying the sequel. I want to know more.