Book club: Aftershocks, by A. N. Wilson

by
05 July 2019

Richard Harries on A. N. Wilson’s compelling novel Aftershocks

A. N. WILSON makes it clear that this book is not based on the earthquake in New Zealand which demolished Christ Church Cathedral in 2016, although he says that the seed of it was planted when he was on a short visit there the following year. A devastating earthquake does, indeed, occur in the novel, but the aftershocks of the title are to do with what happened to several relationships as a result of it, and, in particular, to the inner life of the Dean of the cathedral.

The Dean, Eleanor Bartlett, is English, and was brought up in England. She is scholarly and sophisticated, and could have been an academic. Coming with her to this colonial city, Aberdeen, on a fictional island bearing similarities to New Zealand, and living in a tower attached to the deanery, is Nell Digby. Nell is an Oxford classicist of some distinction, who is giving some stimulating seminars in the local university with Barnaby Farrell. Attending this seminar is a woman through whose eyes we follow the developing story.

The first chapter is not easy, as we try to work out who is who; and this woman’s voice, chipper and chatty, is slightly irritating as she changes from describing the others to intruding in the narrative with an aside that says you will find out more later. But that is part of her characterisation as a slightly brash, younger islander, and we quickly get drawn into the story.

This younger voice says that, from the beginning, she has known what is happening: that is, what is happening between the Dean, Eleanor, and the academic, Nell. What actually happens turns out to be very surprising, and it is all shaken into the open by the earthquake. During the earthquake, thinking that she might die, Eleanor remembers one of her father’s favourite sayings: “Le vent se lève! . . . Il faut tenter de vivre!” (from the French symbolist poet Paul Valéry, “The wind rises!. . . One must try to live!”). It is a turning-point in her life.

The novel is primarily about Eleanor, but we also read about her estranged husband, Doug; Barnaby, who shares the seminar with Nell; the local MP; and others. In addition to the earthquake, there is a further story about whether the cathedral should be rebuilt or the whole site developed in a new way, and this involves a developer, and potential corruption. The somewhat crass bishop, who did not like the Gothic architecture of the old cathedral, and who is all for “outreach”, is in favour of the latter.

SAM ARDLEYThe author, A. N. Wilson: novelist, biographer, and historian

A. N. Wilson is a gifted writer both as a biographer and novelist. He has also been through many religious phases in his life. In this novel, all his conflicting feelings about belief and the Church are present in persuasive form. Eleanor’s father, for example, is an Anglo-Catholic priest of an old-fashioned kind. He and his great friend Lesley Mannock present a portrait of a beautiful ideal that is not as much in evidence now as it once was.

They have spent their lives ministering to small congregations in the Midlands, faithfully saying the Offices, caring for the people, and hearing confessions. Whatever the state of their personal belief, they have an overwhelming sense of vocation to guard the faith; to hand it down faithfully even in these unpropitious times. What they had learnt from the Cuddesdon motto, “That good thing which was committed unto thee, keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us,” kept them going.

They are not given to emotional display, and qualify for the description “the chosen frozen”, apparently used about American Episcopalians, which I had not heard before.

Eleanor is inspired by her father’s loving personality and faithful ministry; at the same time, however, she feels the force of Nell’s atheism and her sense of life as a tragedy, now brought home so forcefully by the earthquake. The plays of Euripides feature in the novel, their sense of human dignity asserted even in the face of impersonal or hostile forces. This tragic view of life offers a stern and noble alternative to the Christian vision. When all else fails, what enables a person of faith to keep going?

For Eleanor’s father and Lesley, and Eleanor herself, it is the tradition of literary Anglicanism, represented by George Herbert, Samuel Johnson, T. S. Eliot, and Rosemary Macaulay. In the end, they would rather belong to this rich stream of wisdom than that represented by people such as Hume and Bertrand Russell.
The world that Eleanor grew up in has changed, and is changing dramatically.

The change in outlook is represented by the young islander girl, who emerges in her own right by the end of the novel — no longer as an observer, but as a full participant. With the girl’s younger outlook, too, you feel some of Wilson’s sympathies lie, not least in the affirmation of human love in a world that can sometimes seem so cold and bleak.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.


Aftershocks by A. N. Wilson is published by Atlantic Books at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-7864-9605-8.


AFTERSHOCKS —
SOME QUESTIONS

  1. What effect did the reveal have, for you? Was it a surprise?

  2. Do you have conflicting religious beliefs? How do you deal with these?

  3. Tragedy — as a literary form — is discussed regularly in the novel. Do you agree with Ingrid about what makes a “sad event” a tragedy? Is the earthquake a tragedy, for you?

  4. The MP Deirdre Hadley is spoken of as “bonkers”. Why is it so hard for her to be taken seriously?

  5. The “benign” Christianity of evensong and Victorian architecture is in conflict, for Eleanor, with a “nakedly aggressive” religion “telling you God wants gay people to go to hell”. Is there a way to resolve this conflict?

  6. People are described as experiencing detachment and numbness during the earthquake. Can you relate to this feeling? Do you think it would be accurate?

  7. What did you make of Nellie’s sermon after the earthquake? Does she resolve any of her religious questions? How?

  8. What different sorts of husbands and marriages are shown in the novel? Does A. N. Wilson always take a dim view of marriage in this novel?

  9. What do you think is the significance of the novel’s title, Aftershocks?

  10. Ingrid asks whether the play put on after the earthquake was “not to make sense of the suffering, but to inject a note of dignity”. Do plays and literature have this power? How? Is Aftershocks in itself an attempt to do this?

 

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 2 August, we will print extra information about our next book, None So Blind by Alis Hawkins. It is published by the Dome Press at £8.99; 978-1-912534-03-6).

Book notes

In Wales in 1839-43, tenant farmers rose up in a series of protests against poor economic conditions. These so-called “Rebecca rioters” often dressed in women’s clothes with masks or blackened faces. Set in west Wales in the 1850s, None So Blind follows Harry Probert-Lloyd, a barrister forced to move back home to rural Wales when he begins to go blind. When the bones of a young woman are discovered at a neighbouring property, he is determined, with the help of his assistant, John Davies, to get to the bottom of the mystery of her death. What do the “Rebecca rioters” have to do with it?

Author notes

Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in the Teifi Valley, in the far west of Wales. She read English literature at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, before training and working as a speech and language therapist. An accomplished playwright and author, her first novel, Testament, was published in 2009. Hawkins is interested in Welsh history, and None so Blind (2017) was written, in part, to raise awareness of the Rebecca Riots, which she has labelled “Wales’s best-kept historical secret”. She has two children, and lives with her husband in the Forest of Dean.

Books for the next two months

September: E.E.G. by Daša Drndic
October: Plainsong by Kent Haruf

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