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TV pilgrimage to the grotto

08 February 2011

Richard Harries finds compassion as well as humour in a novel


Michael Arditti
Arcadia £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80

FEW contemporary novelists are able to engage with both a secular and a religious view of the world in such a way as to feel the pull of both. Michael Arditti is someone who does do this, and the theme of his fine new novel is ideally suited to his gifts.

The central character, Gillian, has gone to Lourdes with her husband, Richard, who, as a result of a severe stroke, has reverted to childhood, though retaining his adult appetites, and needs constant care. She has gone at the instigation of her mother-in-law, Patricia, who travels with her. This particular trip to Lourdes is being filmed for a TV documentary; and so we also enter into the tough-minded but cheerful scepticism of Vincent, the director, and his film crew.

The setting being Lourdes, there is an expectation that something will happen: but what? In fact, right from the first page, we know some­thing unexpected has indeed oc­curred, because the time frame of the novel is unusual. We see the Monday-to-Friday visit through the narratives of Gillian and Vincent in alternating chapters, but with Gillian we begin on the Friday and work backwards, while with Vincent we begin on the Monday and work forwards. Although I was occasion­ally irritated by this device, by the end we can see how well it has worked.

The main characters, Gillian, Vincent, Richard, and his mother, Patricia, are wonderfully well drawn, and we fully enter into their feelings and outlook on life. The minor characters, the helpers at Lourdes, the brancardiers, and the sick are, perhaps, too many to really take off as individuals, but they provide the appropriate context of affliction, pathos, pity, Stoical courage, and humour.

Another of Michael Arditti’s gifts is to combine high seriousness with laughter and occasional comic ab­surdity, and again he does this to great effect in Jubilate. The central issue with which he deals in this novel is one that will be all too real for some. He addresses it with an understanding of what Christian compassion might involve, but, like Dr Johnson, with a cheerfulness that keeps breaking in.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentre­garth is Gresham Professor of Divinity. His latest book is Questions of Life and Death: Christian faith and medical intervention (SPCK).

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