AT FIRST I thought, “Oh no! Not another novel about the Vatican and wayward priests…” But I became quickly engaged. Yes, there is scandal and intrigue, but the core of the novel has an unusual premise, with unexpected consequences.
At the centre is a newly installed, 55-year-old Irish Pope, Patrick. He is atypical, keeping his own name rather than choosing a pontifical one. He also has family issues: an unstable young female cousin who has lost too many pregnancies, andparents who kept the truth of his birth and rare physicality from him; and he struggles with the isolating burden of being the Pope.
As events quickly unfold towards a barely credible outcome, which it would be a shame to reveal, the reader is gripped with a sort of horrified sympathy. Patrick is dragged through events that make him finally understand what women go through, and what true love, bravery, and sacrifice are.
Maggie Hamand deals with Patrick’s fear of doctors, sex, conspiracies, and the Vatican itself in a lively and sympathetic way. As the author of books about how to write (NB the hugely successful Creative Writing for Dummies), she illustrates here exactly how to keep the reader with her. Her theological qualifications give her a familiarity with religious practice and doctrine (though in Catholic Ireland I think it’s “Our Father who”, not “which”); there are the questions of limbo, gender, and, crucially, the vagaries of pregnancy: and she refers to contemporary Irish events — the Kerry Babies, and a refused abortion that leads to a mother’s death — which lend relevance to the novel. And there are elements of the thriller: conspiracy, attempted murder, a car-chase through Rome.
Expertly, she convinces us to the point where we willingly suspend disbelief. And has a miracle occurred? Read the book.
Virgin and Child
Barbican Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30