This is an unusual book with a sleepy start. In setting the scene, there is an accurate description of typical village life with all its politics that calls to mind The Vicar of Dibley (but without the laugh out loud humour). I confess that one chapter in, I wanted a cast list or family tree as character after character appeared in rapid succession, or even guiltily to skip some pages and see how the book ended. However, persevering was definitely worth it, and in the end I got through this novel in one sitting, as the anticipated direction of the book was not the one that was taken.
Given that this is not a long book, it is not surprising that some of the characters are two-dimensional, but fortunately this did not impact upon the central character. The author skilfully draws him to life in a few paragraphs, sketching the others only as pertinent to their characteristics and role within the storyline. The surprising mix of topics – the music industry, church, village life, and law – is an interesting backdrop for a thoughtful tale of ordinary people, while demonstrating that “ordinary” encompasses a very wide spectrum indeed…
The flashes of humour that are present are very dry; this is not a comedy but rather an opportunity to follow the struggle of the male protagonist. Difficult themes are covered in the book, including the security of coupledom versus the price that one might be willing to pay for it; the place children have in a family; growing older alone; how teenagers become aware of their burgeoning sexuality; the ethics of criminal ‘thoughts’ over criminal deeds; and whether the whole of the criminal justice system needs an overhaul when it comes to certain types of offence.
Yet these serious topics are covered lightly and the drama concentrates on a single storyline where there are insights into different mind-sets when an accusation becomes public. This book challenges the idea that children cannot lie, or test the boundaries of their behaviour, which some will find controversial. To me it appeared that even religion played a diffident role given the title of the book: the quiet importance of faith in times of adversity was present, but so too was the more uneasy concept of religion as drama and something to hide behind.
The impact of the Saville Inquiry on society sits alongside the sad reality that love may be considered a motive to lie in a criminal trial. Moral conundrums are gently aired as commentary on modern life. The past is not romanticised and there is a very prosaic sense of everyone needing to get on with life and do the best they can with the cards that they are dealt. None of this detracts from a story that is plausible and arresting.
The Rector is charged with a criminal offence: the trial scenes are short but nonetheless packed with drama. The economy of prose meant that it was surprising that there was room for beautiful descriptions of historic buildings or that nuanced class divides were so neatly captured. This is a book that I would have been happy to have filled out so that there were twice as many pages. Perhaps, like me, much reflection will occur to you after you finish reading rather than while you read. Is justice meted out to each of us one way or another, even if the punishment and crime do not always fit? Or does the sense of God’s Will help those with strong faith make sense of the injustice that is sometimes encountered? Is society too quick to use stereotypes to encompass different groups of people unfairly? Is being the best you can be about demonstrating one’s Free Will in the face of alarming odds? A thought-provoking and easy read.
Reviewer: Melissa Coutinho