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Copybook blotted

28 November 2014

Peggy Woodford  enjoys a lively story of church folk

Acts and Omissions
Catherine Fox
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT292 )

ONLY someone wholly versed in the Church of England can accurately use the phrase "herding cats" to describe a cathedral's canon precentor endeavouring to seat "readers, chaplains, college of canons, chapter clerk, diocesan registrar, chancellor of the diocese, archdeacon . . . the dean, the suffragan bishop . . . until right at the end we find the bishop of Lindchester".

Catherine Fox (married to a dean) is evoking the farewell service of her hero, Paul Henderson, the said bishop, who has seriously blotted his copybook, lost his chance of elevation to archbishop, and is off with his wife, Susannah (who has spent the entire novel obsessively baking cakes and biscuits), to South Africa, to make a new life.

The cause of his downfall is Freddie May, the ravishingly attractive golden-haired member of the choir with a tenor voice to die for. He is also accident-prone, unreliable, and gay. Freddie is in many ways the wobbly axle on which much of this enjoyable novel's action turns as it unfolds month by month, January to December, through the rituals of the Christian year in the fictional diocese of Lindchester.

And if you expect restrained, dignified dialogue, think again: most of the characters swear continually with vivid and colourful abandon. Fox's ear for dialogue is delightfully acute, from the mumbling teenager Freddie to the irascible senior clergy.

SPCK's new venture into fiction is full of surprises, a refreshing lack of asterisks, and an admirable absence of typos. The only two books so far on its fiction list are both by Catherine Fox: first came Angels and Men; and Acts and Omissions will be followed in June 2015 by a sequel, Unseen Things Above. It's a very good start, but I wish the editor had stopped Fox using rhetorical statements such as "it is not the intention of this narrative to visit evil upon its characters." She uses her authorial voice too often in this way, and, in my opinion, never to advantage.

Peggy Woodford is a novelist.

SPCK's new paperback edition of Angels and Men is priced at £9.99 (£9); 978-0-281-07230-9.

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