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January's title: Havoc, in its Third year

02 November 2006

Unsettling grace in a world of violent religion: Naomi Starkey reads Ronan Bennett's murder mystery, historical novel, and allegory: Havoc, in its Third Year

The title of this book encapsulates its mood and context, with the mind's echo of "and let slip the dogs of war", and the jolt of the last four words: "in its third year". This is a book about a time
of endless turmoil, when there is neither any memory of an earlier more tranquil era, nor any prospect of conflict resolved by the close of the narrative.

Set in England in the 1630s, it is a vivid - at times painfully vivid - evocation of what it might be like to live in a time and a place dominated by intense religious fervour, endless conspiracies, and rumours of invasion and instability even in the home, let alone the wider community. Even the weather is violent and stormy, and the margins of the story throng with minor characters suffering various unpleasant diseases and festering wounds.

The plot centres on John Brigge, the local coroner in a desolate area of northern England. He is called away from his hill farm and pregnant wife to the nearby town, where he must investigate an Irishwoman, Katharine Shay, who is accused of murdering her baby. The authorities are keen for her conviction and execution, but a vital witness turns out to be missing, and eventually Brigge decides to go in search of this person, doing his best to ensure that justice is done.

This is no straightforward Brother Cadfael murder mystery, however, as the fate of Katharine Shay is interwoven with the plotting between different political-religious factions in the town. It is the time of Puritan dominance, and Brigge has to keep his Catholicism secret, if he is to maintain his political standing and protect his household. The new town prison is crammed with men, women, and children facing all manner of torture and inhuman punishment for all manner of crimes, from the serious to the incomprehensibly petty. The authorities' crusade for "the good government of the town and the reformation of its people" is raging out of control.

Brigge knows that he himself is weak and fallible, but he struggles to do what he believes to be right. Meanwhile, he is surrounded by men disguising their manoeuvrings for power with a veneer of religious fervour. For me there were echoes of Arthur Miller's The Crucible - it's strange how Puritans never seem to get a good write-up.

As the story unfolds, it shifts into a more allegorical mode, so that the book's front cover quotes from The Independent's review, which declares it a "fable and parable for all times - and ours in particular".

After finishing the book myself, I was left pondering two issues. First, I found that it undermined any romantic inclination (found a little too often in some writers on spirituality, in my experience) to idealise a long-ago world - one of living simply in the countryside, away from the excesses of consumerism, the global information networks, the endless deadlines, and so on. As a well-researched and powerfully atmospheric historical novel, this book makes you heartily thankful to look up and find yourself in a world of sophisticated obstetrics, modern legal processes, and zealously guarded human rights.

It is sobering to think about parts of the world where life might still be held as cheap as it was in England nearly 400 years ago, where utter destitution is a familiar sight, and where there is no more than a faint hope of peace in the land. It is also a reminder how desperately isolated small communities can be, and how vulnerable the individuals within them, when there is no appeal to any outside authority except God - as interpreted by the ruling powers with all their vested interests.

The second issue that the book raised for me was the unexpected - and all too often unsettling and unaccountable - workings of grace. As the story reaches its moving and semi-mystical conclusion, there is a sense of God's grace at work, although it does not seem to be recognised as such by any of the remaining characters, for whom any traditional creed brought only suffering and (literally) dust and ashes.

Despite the barbaric justice carried out in the name of religion, the bleakness and bitterness of life, and the sense of approaching doom, the final impression is of unexpected healing and blessing, breaking through at the very end.
Naomi Starkey is commissioning editor for the Bible Reading Fellowship' s adult list. She also edits the Bible-reading notes, New Daylight , and the spirituality journal, Quiet Spaces.

Havoc, in its Third Year by Ronan Bennett is published by Review Headline at £7.99 ( CT Bookshop £7.20 ); 0-7472-6034-6.


Havoc, in its Third Year - SOME QUESTIONS

How do the religious disagreements of 17th-century Yorkshire mirror some of the debates in Christianity (and in other religions) today? What does this reveal about human nature?

Brigge reflects on the efficacy of punishment (pages 55-56). What is a successful punishment?

What are the differences between administering the law and administering justice?

"Men must have mercy, for without mercy we are savages" (Brigge, page 215). "Without law we descend to the level of beasts" (Challoner, page 215). Do you agree with either of these sentiments? The law versus the heart: where should we draw the boundaries?

Holy water and eagle-stones: are these merely superstitious objects, or does God work through them, as Brigge believes?

What is at the heart of Brigge's disagreements with his fellow governors?

Why does Katharine Shay perplex Brigge so much?

What does Brigge's attitude towards Dorcas and Adam tell us?

Do you think that Brigge is an honourable man? What other words might you use to describe him?

IN our next reading-groups page, on 3 February, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Reading with God by David Foster. It is published by Continuum at £9.99 ( CT Bookshop £9 ); 0-8264-6084-4.


Author notes
Dom David Foster is a monk of Downside Abbey, near Bath. He edited and compiled The Catholic Prayer Book from Downside; a new edition was published in 2003.

Book notes
Reading with God: Lectio Divina is an introduction to a particular form of spiritual reading, in which the participant seeks to listen to God through the texts of Scripture. David Foster's work is a practical handbook, which works through six stages; its aim is to teach readers how to use this form of prayer, which originated with St Benedict and has been widely used by Benedictines and other monastic communities through the ages.

Books for the next two months:
March: Small Island by Andrea Levy
April: Caring for Creation edited by Sarah Tillett


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