JAMES RUNCIE’s seventh novel about Canon Sidney Chambers takes the reader back in time to Chambers’s youth — the book begins at a grand party given in 1938 to celebrate his best friend Robert Kendall’s 18th birthday, before the action shifts to 1943. The two friends, now aged 23 and in the Scots Guards, are landing at Salerno on the coast of Italy, under heavy attack by the Germans and Italians. It is a brutal start: Chambers nearly dies and is saved by Kendall, but when Kendall is severely wounded and dies on the battlefield on 26 January 1944, Chambers feels a terrible guilt for not being able to save his best friend.
It is this inner turmoil, this loss of innocence, that finally sends Chambers, much to the mocking incredulity of friends and family, towards his calling: to be ordained. They’re all of the view that “God is best kept for Sundays and inside a church”. Chambers is breaking the mould, and they find it incomprehensible — there are so many careers he could pursue; so why on earth choose this one?
Runcie’s strength is to flesh out the tensions and arguments that any young man would endure post-war: with so many other opportunities ahead of him now that it was peacetime, why choose a career that seemed to offer so little?
Chambers escapes on retreat to a monastery in Northumberland, where he joins in the simple daily routines of prayer, gardening, laundry, cooking. This suspension from his former life begins to heal his profound post-war stress, and makes him realise that “he is not entirely certain he can live in two worlds, one of faith and one of everyday reality, or even if he can bring the two of them together; but, when he leaves, he is surer than ever that he will be unable to do anything else.”
This novel will delight all Runcie’s regular readers, and is an ideal introduction for new readers to the Grantchester series of novels. And as they will discover later in the series, Chambers marries a German. . .
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.
The Road to Grantchester
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