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The Choice by Michael Arditti

02 June 2023

Angela Tilby considers a novel and its Eden

CLARISSA is a parish priest, a bishop’s daughter who was once a producer for the BBC’s Religious Broadcasting Department before pursuing a call to ordination. On the way, she married Marcus, who should have been a singer, but was diverted into working for Christie’s. Both have an interest in the work of Seward Wemlock, a celebrated artist.

In her BBC post, Clarissa has made a programme about a series of painted panels of the Garden of Eden created by Wemlock for Tapley Church, using locals as models, with predictable consequences, especially for those posing as Adam and Eve. After Clarissa returns to Tapley as its priest, she finds herself accidentally witnessing a sexual encounter that cannot go unreported. But there are even darker secrets to be uncovered in Wemlock’s Garden of Eden, which presents Clarissa with further impossible dilemmas.

It is rare these days to find a novel about religion which is neither aggressively dismissive nor piously simplistic. If you provocatively add sex into the mix, you need a delicate touch with character and a sense of humour. Michael Arditti, fortunately, has both. The Choice is a glittering satire, which amuses even as it provokes serious questions of aesthetics and morality. It also casts a questioning glance at the C of E’s well-meaning but perhaps inadequate approach on issues such as safeguarding and under-age sex.

All through the narrative, he reminds us that the moral choices that we make as individuals have implications for others which we may not foresee. He also understands, as few writers do these days, how the biblical stories still illuminate our present lives. Desire, violence, passion, and hatred are still part of the human mix, and, like God, Arditti “knoweth whereof we are made”. Most lives are messy. Most of us have good intentions, and most of us are also hypocrites.

We sympathise with the impossible choices forced on the central characters and are relieved if we don’t have to face them, but — hang on a minute — perhaps we do.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.


The Choice
Michael Arditti
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