LUCY BECKETT’s new novel is unusual, and also good. At more than 500 pages, its length and bulk mean that it is not the sort of book you can read on a train; moreover, it is a novel of ideas, serious ideas. While the plot and the characters are interesting, they serve to help the author explore philosophical, political, and religious ideas, besides introducing us to a troubled period of history.
Jamila’s mother has just died, telling her daughter that her father, whom she has never known, is alive and living in Burgundy. She goes to visit the old man, who is hideously scarred, and who is the Thamar of the title. He is writing his life story, and asks Jamila’s son, Bernard, to come and live with him and put his writings into publishable form.
Thus the reader is introduced to two stories that intertwine: that of Bernard, a young man straight out of the University of Nantes, with no real idea of history or religion, on a voyage of discovery; and Thamar’s own story as a young man in Algeria, set in the wider context of France’s disastrous involvement in that country.
What emerges is that history and religion cannot be separated. One nexus between the two in the story of Algeria are the White Fathers, the Roman Catholic religious order, who, though witnessing to Christ in Algeria, are anti-imperialist in their approach. Beckett suggests that France’s current woes with its unassimilated Arab population and with Islamist terrorism are France’s own fault.
This is a common, though not universally held, idea; but what her novel tells us about Algeria is enlightening. Algeria has been reduced to an episode, and a half-forgotten one at that, but the book convinces us that it cannot be seen as such: like Thamar, we are all scarred by the war in Algeria. The effects of the war are still with us; trying to forget it is futile.
The novel’s sinuous narrative takes one wrong turn in dealing with Thamar, late in the book. The story of Bernard is sympathetically told, often against a background of the Burgundian countryside, which is haunted by the ruins of great monasteries. There is so much history in France, so much conflict, and the past weighs heavily. The question is — how do we deal with it?
Although some of the discussions between Bernard and his grandfather seem ponderous, the novel closes with something very like an epiphany. Time can be redeemed after all. Even if redemption remains a distant hope, the hope is still there.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Roman Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology, and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald.
The Year of Thamar’s Book
Church Times Bookshop £18