Book: Absolute Truths
Author: Susan Howatch
Publication: 1995 (Knopf)
Religion. Hoo boy.
You need to know this is a touchy subject for me. I’m not religious, but a few people I love are, and that divide’s made things difficult.
It’s made me want to understand other people’s views on religion and why they think and feel the ways they do. I know your basic Southern-kid-who-went-to-church theology, but I want to learn about the human side of it. Unfortunately, this book kept me at arm’s length.
Despite spanning over 500 pages, the story never gets anywhere. It’s about a senior clergyman in the Church of England—a bishop who’s sort of like the CEO of this small town’s church system, although I never got a clear picture of the whole infrastructure so that metaphor might be off—who has to juggle his job, his God, and the death of his wife as intermingling factors he has to deal with at the same time to get some peace.
Cool! Ripe for some heavy philosophical discussion and reflection! I mean, we all know it’s going to end in a deeper appreciation of God because that’s just how these things work, but still—interesting journey is still worth the trip! Yes?
No. Not when everybody lectures instead of speaks; not when the protagonist has such a talent for drowning the truly scandalous (interesting) bits in wordy paragraphs that start with sentences like, “This is too irredeemable for me to even consider to put on paper, suffice to say”; not when the rest of the prose reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel only without the murder or quirkier human details.
I had such high hopes at page 39, when the bishop’s wife asks him, “What happens to the people who just can’t fit into this neat, orderly world designed by the Church?” YES. What DOES happen to them?
I still don’t know. He just says that surely it’s in his favor that he has no idea what it’s like to be a homosexual, and then dodges the rest of her questions until she gets too exasperated to keep asking. And the big, scandalizing secret about his adopted son’s father (who had an affair with the bishop’s wife right before she became the bishop’s wife)? He was actually a good man instead of a bastard.
OH MY STARS AND GARTERS. THAT…wait, that’s not worth any of this massive pile of angst you’ve put yourself and your reader through. There are a couple more anti-reveals like that instead of a satisfying wah-bam climax. Shhffft. (That’s my frustrated sound, blown through pursed lips while scowling.)
No absolute truths are ever revealed. I call out Howatch for false titling.
However, this is the last book in a series. Each novel is self-contained but interlocking, and I think maybe the one that describes the great spiritual crisis of 1937 might be more interesting, because that is alluded to CONSTANTLY as the start of everything. Except that book’s also narrated by the same protagonist. If it was narrated by the bishop’s wife, I would totally give that one a chance. Her name is Lyle and she’s awesome but she dies of a brain aneurysm.