Tuesday, 17 July 2012

An Unusual Read

I've just been reading an unusual novel. Called A Perfectly Good Man, it's a new novel (published this year) by Patrick Gale and it tells the story of a parish priest in Cornwall. That was the reason I picked it off the bookshelf in Ripon's Little Bookshop. It appeared to be about rural parish life in a mining community which is gradually losing its mining industry.  In fact, it's about much more than that. The narrative is very ingenious, moving through time, but not always chronologically, telling the story from the perspective of different characters at different stages of their lives over a whole life span. As I read, I reflected that this is the way parish priests who stay awhile come to know their communities - they come to understand the different view point of each generation and also how things that have happened a long time in the past shape the future for good or ill and mean that certain relationships are bound to be special whilst others will always struggle to thrive.

The book is about the life and ministry of a very ordinary priest and his family. While revealing to us something of the inner joys and struggles of life in a clergy household, it also deals with the ways in which our birth families shape how we relate to spouses, children and those with whom our children make relationships. It shows what being a partly public figure throughout a lifetime does to family relationships for good and ill and it explores faithfulness, doubt, duty and that illusive sense of transcendence pervading the ordinary.

At one level this is a book about the faithful but unexciting life of a priest and yet it deals with themes which bring us to the edge of some of the greatest and deepest dramas of life and death. This is its brilliance - Gale somehow manages to show what difference a perfectly ordinary priest can make in the tangle of human life. Sometimes his actions make very little difference, occasionally his actions or his presence make a great deal of difference, sometimes the very little he does (maybe simply praying) make all the world of difference. Every priest will identify with this. And this unexceptional man encounters on his way still birth, adoption of a child from another culture, the suicide of a disabled person, illegitimacy, political action, drug abuse, disinheritance, retirement, bereavement, civil marriage, his own arrest, media pressure and issues to do with the way in which people with criminal records and inadequacies look to the local church for support and inclusion.

The delight of the book is that each character contributes to our understanding of the community and of the priest's ministry - it is not priest-centric. We also see how prayer and the intangible things that priests do are of value - a value that many will never appreciate but, nevertheless, at the heart of a life lived with and for God. We see how the sharing of brief moments of gentle or profound spiritual insight help to shape the lives of some of the people he encounters as well as his own life.

It is a book about a human father and son, their relationship, their deepening knowledge of one another and their suffering. It is a book about God and His relationship with all  human life, our deepening knowledge of God through the heights and depths of our existence and the way God both withdraws and meets us in our suffering. But you could just read it as simply a story about people finding their way towards truth and a priest who doesn't think he is achieving much. The book is, at the same time, both modest and profound.

A Perfectly Good Man Patrick Gale, Fourth Estate, Harper Collins 2012.

No comments:

Post a Comment