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Book review: Lifescapes: A biographer’s search for the soul by Ann Wroe

24 November 2023

This writer sees what others miss, suggests Richard Greatrex

ANN WROE, obituarist for The Economist and biographer of, among others, Shelley, St Francis of Assisi, and Pontius Pilate, has written a gentle, probing, and perceptive book of great luminosity. Her graceful, measured writing, patient observation, extensive literary remembrance, and understated Catholic faith bring to mind Ronald Blythe’s earthed elegance. But, where Blythe’s trajectory often seemed to move from landscape to people to the divine, Wroe’s arcs from people through their environment to God-in-us.

Her starting point is a collection of her poems about individuals, around which she has enamelled miniature portraits that reveal rather than capture something essential about each life. She begins with the obituary for a much-caught carp, likening her work to the catching of souls: a phrase that feels too coarse for the subtle way in which she illuminates a dazzle of iridescence that others miss, the intensity of the individual often airbrushed out by the public gaze.

Like Dante, who feels ever present in the book, she is able, with a few precise words, to bring complex, contradictory characters vividly to life, but she does so with the spiritual generosity of Marilynne Robinson, the interiority of G. M. Hopkins, and the restless searching of Shelley.

With fish-like slipperiness, the soul that she seeks always lies in slightly deeper waters: just a flash and a glance caught on each page. Bit by bit, those halcyon glimpses build, through the tiny details of lives both public — Aretha Franklin; Seamus Heaney — and private — Qusai Abtini, a teenager shot by a sniper in the siege of Aleppo; Marie Smith, the last speaker of the Eyak language — into a shimmer of something other.

While honouring many diverse lives with great generosity, she also displays quiet attentiveness to stories of the soul proffered by faiths other than her own, weaving them together not to “solve the Great Mystery”, as Shelley once put it, but to illuminate one aspect of it. That is connectedness, the tight threads spinning around the world, through time, which draw Rumi, Bob Marley, Rilke, a red balloon, a goshawk, Brother Roger, an Indian cyclist, a medieval treasurer, and a great cloud of witnesses into the same eternity and the same present.

By refusing to pin down the soul in this precisely faceted gem of a spiritual classic, Wroe has given our own fresh wings to search for, and be met with, Immanuel.

The Revd Richard Greatrex is Rector of the Chew Valley East Benefice, in Somerset.


Lifescapes: A biographer’s search for the soul
Ann Wroe
Jonathan Cape £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.09

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