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ROS BARBER’s powerful novel Devotion unfolds in a post-Richard Dawkins world where religious belief is defined as a form of mental illness. The central character is a psychologist, Dr Finlay Logan, whose current focus is on April, a 19-year-old elective mute. She is accused of a religiously motivated atrocity — blowing up a coachload of student-members of the Righteous Non-Believers Society on an outing supporting The Atheist’s Charter.
Since this event, April has refused to talk; and Logan gets nowhere with her until he hands her over to Dr Gabriel Salmon at the Alterman Centre for a different, God-based approach (which is similar, apparently, to that used by the real-life Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at Sussex University).
Logan is a tormented, broken man, unable to forgive himself for failing to relate to Flora, his daughter from his first marriage who has recently died in a tragic accident, and whose last word to him at the end of a bitter discussion was “arsehole”. He cannot forgive himself for having told her that her conception had been an accident, and he cannot move on because she is now dead. “Daddy’s girl. He told her she was an accident, and she became one.” It’s as if his academic training and expertise are no use in his own life.
The word “devotion” means many things in this well-written multi-layered novel: it is a scent used by Flora; it’s the emotion that keeps stressed families together, dogs loyal, and academics sticking to their theories, however misdirected. Devotion is both a power for good, and a danger when its focus is misplaced or plain wrong. Devotion between beings is also influenced by the four sub-divisions of this novel: biology, psychology, chemistry, and physics.
Barber describes the tensions among her complex mix of interrelated characters with precision and lyricism. Devotion is her second novel; and, judging by the biographical details that can be gleaned from her website, her multi-layered academic life is as complex as any in this novel.
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.
IN LYDIA’S DREAM, Don Suggs tells the story of the first Easter through the eyes of the wife of Pontius Pilate (Matador, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-178306-22-1).