Thursday, 6 October 2011
The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman
A very long time ago I worked in a bookshop run by a publisher of religious books. In those pre-credit card days all the local clergy had an account with us and it was inevitable that the bookshop staff got to know them reasonably well, from curates all the way up to bishops (so when my stepfather rang up one day and said "Good afternoon, this is the Bishop of Birmingham and I'd like to order a book" I wasn't at all surprised...at least, not until he'd said actually, it wasn't, at which point I got very flustered!) Anyway, that's all by way of preamble - the point is that definitely the most romantic and intriguing title I came across in those days was that of Diocesan Exorcist, and very occasionally we used to sell a copy of a report written on the subject by that very diocese, which made it feel either terribly cutting-edge or frightfully medieval, I could never quite decide which.
At least according to the Merrily Watkins series, the Church itself still hasn't made up its mind on this question either and when, as the new Priest-in-Charge of the Herefordshire village of Ledwardine, Merrily finds herself in possession (sorry!) of an apparently haunted vicarage, the message she gets when she asks for advice is dismissive. Essentially, official policy is to ignore the paranormal. Of course, it's all more complicated than that. Merrily's failing marriage was abruptly ended when her husband died in a car crash, something neither she nor daughter Jane have entirely come to terms with. And Jane, at 15, is just beginning to test out her independence and to chafe under parental constraint, and anyway she's not entirely happy with Merrily for exchanging marriage for God. As far as she's concerned, the whole religion and prayer thing just makes her thoroughly uncomfortable.
Ledwardine itself adds to the complications. One of the county's most attractive "black and white" villages, its church was at one time entirely situated within a cider orchard, and it's still partially surrounded. Incomers to the village, with an eye for the picturesque and to increasing the tourist trade, want to exploit local customs and traditions, but without regard to their specificity - surely, they consider, wassailing is just that, whether it's the Devon tradition or the Ledwardine one? A local woman, Lucy Devenish, warns that deep offence will be caused to the apple trees, but she is disregarded. Strange things happen in the orchard: there's a death, and a girl disappears, and intense local feeling is stirred up over a tragedy that took place over 300 years earlier.
Merrily's position within the community causes her to feel some anxiety. As an incomer (albeit one with local credentials) she must tread carefully. At the same time, she must establish - and maintain - a degree of spiritual authority in the village. She quickly finds herself having to make decisions which will bring her into opposition with leading local figures, at the same time as she is confronting her own fears. Worries about Jane only add to her burden.
The Wine of Angels is the first of a nice long series of what have been described as "spiritual thrillers", and if you like this one you'll be happy, because there is no falling off as the series continues. If anything, they get scarier. The frights depend on your involvement with the characters - and perhaps, on your fear of the dark: expect cold chills rather than ravening demons. Merrily and Jane are complex and interesting people; though occasionally you want to give one or other of them a good shake, they have a strong moral sense that can be lacking in contemporary fiction. There's a good cast of locals, too, both lovely and unlovely, much as you would find in a real community. And although Ledwardine itself isn't real, the legends, history and literature of Herefordshire are - they combine to provide a rich canvas and are well worth investigating in their own right.
I usually recommend, at this point, settling down with a nice cup of tea to enjoy the book, but in this case it should be the brew for which it is named, cider - but don't forget, the real stuff is very potent!
This was a selection for the RIP VI Challenge.