ON THE Saturday after Christmas, the Revd Pippa Sheppard, looking forward to a quiet day with her teacher husband and two small children, is woken up by persistent knocking from the church’s caretaker. Someone has broken into St Peter’s and is kneeling in front of the altar. He bears a disconcerting resemblance to a famous painting given to the church in the 1950s, and has a small, raw wound in the palm of each hand.
The mystery of his identity is quickly solved, but he has a tale to tell of how a charismatic art teacher at the Lancashire town’s grammar school systematically groomed and abused his pupils, and how he was moved on, with the acquiescence of the vicar, who was one of the governors. Pippa and the editor of the local paper, Eddie Shaw, decide to publish the story, with consequences that no one could have predicted.
Besides being an involving and well-constructed story, this book works on many layers. It’s the first book that I have read in which anyone has considered the life of a woman priest and how she manages the sometimes conflicting demands of family life and parish. Each character has a well-imagined back story and becomes a real person whom the reader cares about. The caretaker is not just a comic character with an impenetrable Glasgow accent: he’s a recovering alcoholic prone to lapses.
The writer examines the pain of a mother who searches for her son for decades, and asks awkward questions about the Church’s part in covering up sexual abuse, and how practising Christians could live with themselves and inflict this kind of harm. Some of it does not make comfortable reading. But it is also a remarkable tale of redemption and forgiveness, which finally comes to a happy conclusion.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.
The Man Who Broke into St Peter’s
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