Saturday, October 01, 2011

the last book I read

Havoc, In Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett.

It's some time shortly after 1630 - no, not half past four, you idiot, the year 1630. Which means that we're in the reign of Charles I, who of course eventually met a head-choppy demise at the hands of Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads. We haven't got to that stage yet, but there is an increasingly militant upswell of Puritan feeling afoot.

It's in this climate of suspicion that John Brigge comes to an unnamed town somewhere in the north of England to discharge his duties as coroner, specifically in regard to a seemingly clear-cut case of infanticide - Irishwoman Katherine Shay has been arrested after a dead newborn infant is found in her room at a lodging-house. An open-and-shut case, on the face of it, but one of the primary witnesses, a young woman, has disappeared. Brigge orders her found and brought before him before a verdict can be reached.

Brigge himself is somewhat preoccupied with matters relating to childbirth - his wife Elizabeth is expecting their first child, and he must regularly ride the distance between his country farm and the town in order to keep tabs on Elizabeth's condition while still fulfilling his duties as coroner. These duties are made more difficult by the increasingly hysterical political atmosphere - Brigge's former friend Nathaniel Challoner has been swept to power in the town on a promise to crack down on matters of law and order, dispense swift justice for wrongdoers, cleanse the streets of vagrants and petty criminals, that sort of thing. The Puritan underpinnings of all this cause Brigge further problems - he is secretly a Catholic, something that could already get you into trouble, but which under the brutal new regime would probably cost you your head.

Brigge's child (a son) eventually arrives, but not without a few dicey moments for both mother and child. When Brigge returns to his duties after this drama he finds things have deteriorated further - various former town dignitaries have been arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and he himself is viewed with increasing suspicion. He discovers that the young witness in the Katherine Shay case has still not been found and resolves to find her, concluding that the town's governing regime's reluctance to pursue her must mean they have something to hide. having finally caught up with her he finds that this is true - it was her child that died, and the child's father who smothered it in a bid not to be revealed as the father. But who was he? Brigge suspects Richard Doliffe, a local constable who has risen rapidly under Challoner's regime, but before he can act he discovers that his wife has died (of some sort of post-childbirth blood infection, by the sound of it). After burying her and returning to town he finds that things have reached a new pitch of hysteria and paranoia, and shortly after witnessing the hanging of a Catholic priest he is arrested and imprisoned.

Awaiting his inevitable public execution, Brigge awakens to find smoke pouring in through the window; the town is under attack and on fire. Released from his cell by a former employee of his who is now working for Challoner, Brigge escapes, then returns to the prison, frees as many prisoners as he can and flees the town with a motley assortment of followers, including Katherine Shay, various members of his household staff and his infant son.

Inspired by Katherine Shay's constant addressing of Brigge as "Germanus" a loose cult grows up around Brigge, who had after all delivered most of them from probable death. Not really the time or the place to be deviating from Protestant orthodoxy, though, and the people the group meet react badly to the pilgrims, eventually resulting in a violent encounter as a result of which Brigge is reunited, in a way, with Elizabeth.

Bennett is an interesting character, by the sound of his Wikipedia page; Northern Irish, imprisoned a couple of times for his political activities in the 1970s, he's written a couple of novels set in exotic locales which seem to be allegories for stuff closer to home (The Catastrophist for one), and Havoc, In Its Third Year is similar, though time is the distancing factor here. The past is a foreign country, after all. The modern themes being satirised are clear though, fundamentalism, intolerance, anti-intellectualism, that sado-masochistic yearning conservatively-inclined people have for a Strong And Decisive Leader who will Crack Down on stuff and Get Things Sorted Out. And once things are sorted out, you can have your basic rights back, OK? It's just that at the moment, in the current climate, they're inconveniencing the swift discharge of justice.

You could ignore the allegorical stuff and just read it as a rollicking story of intrigue and suspense if you wanted though, and it would still work. The language in particular is nicely pitched - you want people speaking in plausibly archaic-sounding English instead of saying "yeah, that is well bad, innit", but you don't want impenetrable archaisms sending you to the dictionary every five minutes and getting in the way of the story. My only criticism would be that the ending is a bit weird - the mini-pilgrimage after the escape from the burning town only occupies the last ten pages or so, but it adds a weirdly quasi-religious coda that doesn't really sit comfortably with what's preceded it. And Brigge's demise with the visions of Elizabeth beckoning him across a field of corn is a bit, well, corny, evoking as it does the final scene of Gladiator.

That aside this is excellent, though, and the judges who gave out the Irish Novel Of The Year award in 2005 agreed with me, which is nice, even if they did give the equivalent 2007 award to Winterwood, which I was less keen on.

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