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The Paper Lovers, by Gerard Woodward 

27 July 2018

Fiona Hook considers a tale of married life

ARNOLD, poet and lecturer, happily married to Polly, develops a crush on one of his wife’s friends, Vera. Feeling protected by her Christian faith and ignorance of his feelings, he starts doing the school run to see her in the playground. This doesn’t last. Soon he is creeping unseen up the rubbish-strewn alley behind her house for weekly sex sessions. While Vera, curiously, has no scruples and seems to think that love is more important than anything else, Arnold, a lifelong atheist, is racked by guilt.

Polly runs a small business making and selling handmade paper, and is completely happy and secure with her husband and child. The only worry that she has is the young poet obsessed with paper who stands outside her shop demanding that their small publishing house publish his work.

When the affair ends, Vera’s husband insists that he seek Polly’s forgiveness. Arnold, knowing that this would be disastrous, starts attending church, and alters for ever the pattern of their family life. It is a vivid and uncomfortable portrayal of a particular type of Christian whose conviction of their own rightness trumps any perception of the damage that they might do others.

One of Gerard Woodward’s gifts is the ability to focus on a very small section of time and describe the minutiae of feelings or happenings second by second, giving his prose at times a television-camera quality. He asks interesting questions. The paper is a metaphor for the fragility of our principles faced with unexpected temptation. Do we keep our moral shape because the stresses placed on it are familiar, and if there were other unexpected pressures, would we tear? And when the certainties we thought we had suddenly disappear, how would we change?

It’s a strange, inconclusive book, which lingers with you long after you’ve read the last page.

Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.

The Paper Lovers
Gerard Woodward
Picador £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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