At a time in modern, secular Britain when religion is seen not as the saviour but as the cause of many of society’s problems, we have become skilled not so much at turning the other cheek as turning a blind eye. Thank God (maybe literally) for writers like Michael Arditti, whose invigorating novels dare to shake us out of our complacency.
Arditti returns to the ecclesiastical territory he charted in previous works, in particular the award-winning novel Easter. As well as examining Christianity as seen through the lives of several members of the Church of England, Arditti’s nuanced cartography now extends to Islam, Judaism, and, briefly, Buddhism and Paganism — although in theological terms he keeps it traditional, with many of his characters in despair and longing for salvation.
Clement, a painter well known for his challenging, some would say shocking, religious art, believes he has reconciled his Christianity with having HIV. His adult life, however, has been coloured by the premature death of his twin. Clement’s bishop father, Edwin, lost his faith but never left the church. Clement’s sister, Susannah, always felt overshadowed by her brothers. In her search for self, she is drawn through the orthodox Lubavitch sect to her mother’s dormant Judaism.
There’s always a delicious tension in Arditti’s style between the energy which fuels his ideas, and his compassion for his characters. His writing is psychologically astute, even with peripheral characters, one of whom, ‘scenting a rival’ for her position as close friend to the newly bereaved, looked ‘piqued’. Arditti also writes with gentle humour, if not black then certainly grimy: ‘This was the man with whom he had lived for five years, only to find, while painting their anniversary portrait, that he should have been painting a group.’
With shifts in narrative perspective, Arditti skilfully negotiates the minefield of doctrinal interpretation, as Clement’s controversial execution of a cathedral’s stained-glass window brings him into conflict with evangelicals, fundamentalists, the press, prison wardens, and his own extended family. If this book has a flaw, it’s that we need an extra shift back to Susannah (now Shoana)’s point of view, to understand what I shall loosely call, without spoiling the plot, her change of heart.
This is a provocative novel, poised between faith and doubt. Religion, Arditti argues, is just one set of beliefs to which people cling to survive. Others put their faith in creativity, or ritual or love. Such complexities play beautifully to Arditti’s unflinching honesty as a writer. He pushes the contemporary English novel not in wacky ways of form or style but in terms of its moral integrity. In addition to pungent debates about reconciling religion with active homosexuality, Arditti touches on abortion and disability, and powerfully dramatises the arguments over euthanasia when Clement and Shoana clash over Edwin’s deteriorating health.
For someone whose subject matter is often other people’s religions, it’s clear that Arditti’s abiding faith lies in the power of fiction today to challenge and move. Whatever our faith or lack of it, as lovers of muscular literature we should only rejoice.