FANS of Abbot Peter who pick up this book expecting another crime in run-down seaside Stormhaven are in for a delightful surprise with this backward glance at the years that the Abbot spent in the desert, heading the down-at-heel monastery of St James in the shadow of Mount Sinai. From the deliciously comic opening pages, where the Abbot, at his Writers’ Group, is advised to change the setting of his memoirs from the desert to a counselling centre in a city, because “That’s where people’s lives are,” it is an entertaining and absorbing treat.
Parkes, making a change from his usual third- to first-person narrative, has found a wonderful voice for his protagonist: erudite, sardonic, witty, and full of self-knowledge. Sent to close down the ancient monastery, Peter manages instead to prevaricate for decades, building a community peopled by those with nowhere else to take their creaking lives.
There’s the New York designer Tear-Sing, raised in a Chinese orphanage, and irritating Dalip, who runs from his own problems by imposing his help on others, whether they want him or not. Peter has also to deal with visitors, like the wonderfully drawn Carol, who hopes to be a bishop, superficially so clever and assured, and underneath leading a life of quiet desperation. The sparring provoked by their obvious but unexpressed attraction provides some of the book’s best lines.
But this is more than a lovely piece of satire with some great jokes. When the monastery is invaded by the psychopathic Skarit and his soldiers, the calm of daily routine is overthrown, and people react to violence and terror in a way that no one could have expected. There are moments of genuine pain and horror, and Parkes makes you wonder what you would have done in the circumstances. An absolute triumph.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.
Another Bloody Retreat: Abbot Peter’s desert years
White Crow Books £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9