Sunday, 9 October 2011

People of the Book

Iris Murdoch's The Bell examines the foibles and frustrations of the inhabitants of a lay religious community that's still in it's infancy but hopes to make a splash with the presentation of a new bell to the nearby Nunnery. There's a swath of unusual, nicely drawn characters but the novel focuses in the main on two very different characters: Dora, an immature young bride who after a brief separation from her possessive academic husband reconciles with him but finds the community's pious atmosphere stultifying and restrictive and Michael, the group's "leader" who struggles with the interpersonal relationships and conflicts involved in the communal effort as well as his own repressed homosexuality. Murdoch's impeccable writing slowly, inevitably, marches these nuanced characters towards a bittersweet end that's maybe a little telegraphed, a little too predictable. It's a good read but it's dated a fair bit - written in 1958, the portrayal and development of Michael seems clumsy and a little simplistic by today's standards.

Michel Faber's The Fire Gospel is one of Canongate's somewhat patchy series The Myths and Faber chooses to use, vaguely, the tale of Prometheus to satirize the world of publishing and biblical scholarship. A consulting academic finds a lost, heretical Gospel while visiting a Iraqi museum and his subsequent translation propels him into wealth, celebrity and jeopardy as the impact of this new retelling of Christ's life reverberates around the world. I dunno, Faber, like Murdoch, is an exceptional writer, with a clear, clean prose but this novella was a quite disappointing; the main character is crudely drawn and mostly unlikeable, there's a tenuous similarity to the myth it's supposed to reflect and the interspersion of Malchus' revelatory testimony is a little underwhelming. Though it has it's moments and is occasionally quite funny this feels unfinished and seriously underdeveloped - a shame and quite surprising given the complexity and careful plotting of Under The Skin and Crimson Petal.

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