I MUST admit that I opened Rachel Mann’s debut novel with some trepidation. Hers is by no means the first work of fiction set in an Anglican theological college. P. D. James’s Death in Holy Orders comes to mind, or perhaps Catherine Fox’s The Benefits of Passion and Angels and Men. The latter, in particular, contains some scenes that evoke an eerie sense of recognition in those familiar with the northern university city where these books are set. But a novel is a work of fiction, seeking to strike a balance between observation and inventing what may be believable but not quite.
Catherine (Kitty) Bolton, now on the staff of one of the great cathedrals in England, remembers her time at a theological college in Oxfordshire, where she arrived on the weekend that Diana, Princess of Wales, died. The ordination of women to the priesthood is still relatively recent, and there are those who object to it.
Kitty makes friends among her fellow ordinands, not least with Evie, with whom she begins a passionate affair. Evie turns out to be a complex character, however, and not quite the good friend that she appears to be. It is Evie’s death by suicide that continues to haunt Kitty, and so a story unfolds about a small group of brilliant students and Professor Albertus Loewe, the owner of a secret collection of manuscripts.
Mann is an excellent observer and a remarkable storyteller. I was somewhat relieved not to find matches of recognisable characters, but, instead, a captivating story about some heady days in a small and sometimes inward-looking community, where people come to prepare for their future life of ministry and yet often cannot quite leave their past lives behind.
I very much hope that this is not Mann’s last work of fiction. The Gospel of Eve is certainly a gripping read and an impressive extrapolation of both characters and setting.
Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian, editor and writer based in Peterborough.
The Gospel of Eve
Church Times Bookshop £15