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February's Title: Mr Golightly’s Holiday by Salley Vickers

02 November 2006

SALLEY VICKERS’S first novel, the justly lauded Miss Garnet’s Angel , was about two worlds colliding — that of Julia Garnet, atheist and virgin, and that of the angel who opens up new horizons of meaning. The place of collision was Venice, a city that stands between East and West, land and water — just the place to discover duality. Miss Garnet was also about two stories’ coming together: that of Julia herself; and that of the book of Tobit; and a third story, perhaps, which is born of the fusion of the two.

Readers loved Miss Garnet, and will be glad to know that her third novel carries on these themes. Once again, we have two worlds, two modes of reality: there is the world of the village of Great Calne on Dartmoor, which Mr Golightly chooses for his holiday; and there is the world of the mysterious Mr Golightly himself.

His origins, we are told, are obscure, and the sheer brilliance of the book lies in the identity of Mr Golightly, which I do not want to give away. When I first read this novel (and I have read it four or five times now), I was breathless with admiration at Salley Vickers’s cleverness, when I discovered who Mr Golightly was.

The villagers are a funny lot in every sense: there are the New Age types that you meet everywhere, people such as Morning (née Maureen) Claxon and Nadia Fawns, who has written a crummy novel (Salley Vickers is wonderful with names); and then there is Luke, a poet struggling with an epic on Native American creation myths; Johnny, a boy genius from a troubled background, whom Mr Golightly befriends; and Paula, my favourite.

What is it about Paula, with her obsessive tidiness, her purple sequinned top, her tattoos, her collection of furry animals (including the Wombles — remember them?), her ruby nose studs, and her Brazilian waxing? Some people might be tempted to dismiss her, but not Mr Golightly, who recognises the worth of her sharp common sense, and enables her, along with Johnny and Luke, to change, perhaps, the world.

Much of the action in the book centres on the local pub, the Stag and Badger; there are peaceful walks over the moor; there is local controversy about the fate of the defunct tea-rooms — the staples, you might think, of the country novel. But, under the surface, things are stirring.

Salley Vickers writes very well about the small things of every day — such as Mr Golightly’s hatred of coffee without milk — but one is never allowed to forget that these details form part of a wider picture, and that there is something beyond them that ultimately gives them meaning. Hers is a theological vision: what we see here and now is not the sum of reality. There is more on earth, and certainly in heaven, than we dream of. Disturbing truths keep breaking through.

If one theme in the Vickers oeuvre is how this world and the world beyond intermingle, another is how some find redemption, and others only damnation. Like every village, Great Calne has a Vicar. The Revd Meredith Fisher is knowledgeable about women’s issues and female circumcision. She is learning Swahili, but she has given up (or perhaps never started) prayer. Her fate is to become a hairdresser and beautician — for she misses the soul, and understands only the exterior of humanity.

This is good social comedy, with an underlying sharpness. As for Ellen Thomas, a depressed widow, she finds redemption, but at a cost. In this, she resembles Julia Garnet. Finally, Brian Wolford, the red-haired prison officer, a troubled and troubling presence, deserves only damnation. In a Salley Vickers novel, the stakes are high.

As with Miss Garnet, there is a text behind the text — in this instance, another book from the Bible. Mr Golightly, a cheerful buffer in a faded tweed jacket, old and wise enough to know his limitations, has just learned to use email. A mysterious stranger keeps sending him cryptic messages, which those familiar with the Authorised Version will recognise as quotations from the book of Job. The novel’s theme is the reverse of that of Job: while Job is about a man who is put to the test by God, Mr Golightly’s Holiday is about God’s undergoing the ordeal suffered by his creation daily.

This is a theological book, which is perhaps why so many critics failed to appreciate it when it was published in 2003. The social comedy is delightful, but within it lies a divine comedy. And “comedy” is the right word: “The more he saw of the world, the more it seemed to him that everything had got into a tremendous muddle,” Mr Golightly is driven to observe. Too true; but the muddle can be sorted out.

If Salley Vickers has a spiritual affinity, it is with the late plays of Shakespeare, for the world of this book is one that is presided over by a benign presence, who assures us that all will be well in the end: justice will be done, the good given their reward, and the evil punished — though the justice of God chez Vickers is full of surprises.

The Revd Brother David McLaurin teaches in a seminary in Kenya.

Mr Golightly’s Holiday by Salley Vickers is published by Perennial/ HarperCollins at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 0-00-715648-4-0.

  ReadingGrps Feb05

Creator of the mysterious Mr Golightly:the novelist Salley Vickers


Johnny describes Mr Golightly as “a fattish old guy who looked as if he hadn’t had a proper shave” (page 5). How would you describe Mr Golightly?

Does this book have a message?

“Without great wisdom and strength humankind should pray to be spared the experience of love” (page 100). Do you agree with this?

Salley Vickers writes that the true point of Mr Golightly’s holiday is for him “to learn from, and evolve through, dialogue with his own creation”. How is he changed through interaction with what he has made?

Which of the book’s other characters do you like most? What do you admire about them?

How has the death of Mr Golightly’s son affected who he is now?

Does the Bible need updating?

How do people on the edge become central characters in Mr Golightly’s time in Great Calne?

Why does Mr Golightly fail to recognise his own words when they are sent to him by the phantom emailer?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 4 March, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. It is published by Penguin at £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.30); 0-14-118425-6).

Author notes
Thornton Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1897. Some of his youth was spent in China, when his father was Consul-General to Shanghai. He gained a degree from Yale, and then an MA from Princeton. His first novel, The Cabala, was published in 1926; The Bridge of San Luis Rey followed in 1927. Wilder wrote a number of other novels and plays, and worked as a teacher and lecturer. He won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize twice for the plays Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). He died in 1975.

Book notes
Brother Juniper, an Italian Franciscan missionary, witnesses the collapse of a bridge over a ravine in Peru. He examines the lives of the five people who were killed in the accident, hoping to find a reason behind their deaths, so that he can explain God’s ways. Why was it those particular five people died, he
asks. In telling their tales, he attempts to answer his own question. A film of the book was made in 2003, starring Robert de Niro.

Books for the next two months:
April: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
May: White Mughals by William Dalrymple


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