In the Blink of an Eye

Truth, Beauty and Death: Photography, the Artist and Mourning

In the Blink of an Eye, Ali Bacon, Linen Press, 2018

In a single instance, a transformative and indelible impression may be etched onto the mind via vision, a happening that occurs in “the blink of an eye”. There was seemingly one such moment for the author of this novel. Ali Bacon was working in Oxford’s Bodleian Library when she found a cache of famous Victorian photographs. The overwhelming surge of emotions aroused by that encounter with the first wave of photographic images sparked a life-long interest in early photographers. This, Bacon’s second novel, is the fruit of those powerful feelings and interest. It follows the life of the Scottish artist David Octavius Hill, one of those early pioneers of nineteenth century photography, as he brings to completion the first painting based on photographs, an endeavour that spanned decades. Hill brought a refined sensibility to his photographic partnership with the more technically minded Robert Adamson to establish photography as a recognised art form and the novel is very much a song of praise to this innovator.

The novel is also more than that, of course. It is both history and biography, imagination and reality, fact and fancy. The writing playfully and self-consciously alludes to its status as both truth and fiction, as prominent characters in the establishment of photography as a serious pursuit debate in its pages whether the photographic form of representation is art or artifice, the representation of things as they are or a reimagining of the world. That the issue is relevant to an understanding of the novel itself is indicated by the headings that the chapters fall under: the names of early photographic processes. Thus the novel is seemingly constructed as a photograph and presented as a photograph, one that invites philosophical reflection on its capacity to represent the world and to bear truth beyond surface appearance.

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There are a number of themes which develop in the novel besides its focus on truth and
artifice. Bacon makes much of imbuing her photograph of a novel with the sensibility of
women. She draws on Hill’s relationships with women and often writes from the perspective of these women to understand the man. The novel is therefore interesting in being a “her-story”, rather than a “his-story”, and a self-consciously feminine biography. However, the great theme of the novel which struck me the most was the relationship that it constructed between truth, beauty and mourning. Death is one of the most significant characters in the novel and touches all those involved. From the first, Hill is shown as a widower and then his partner in photography dies. There are further tragedies. All the art and photography that takes place in the novel, described constantly in terms of truth and beauty, can therefore be situated in ideas of death, bereavement and mourning. As Hill’s wife remarks to him towards the close of the novel in a terse summary of the perspective of the novel, Hill’s art can be understood thus: “‘[t]he sadness gives it beauty, the beauty gives you comfort” (204-5).

Inevitably, one wonders why, in Bacon’s view, sadness gives beauty. Is it the sense of
mortality that gives what is beautiful its value and meaning, the sense of an impending
ending? Is it the fleetingness of the moment that gives both art and photography, and this
novel constructed like a photograph, their ultimate raison d’être? Or can we only understand the true artist in the Western tradition as one that suffers?  That is, can Hill only be given recognition as a “proper” artist since he suffers and his suffering bears fruit? After all, one popular image of the artistic genius is “the tortured soul” who is besieged on all sides by harsh happenings, experiences which appear to give his or her art greater depth, value and meaning to the public. One thinks of how their biographical details add to the status of figures like Vincent Van Gogh and the feminist icon Frida Kahlo, who is in fact called “La Heroina del Dolor”, or “The Heroine of Pain”.

Bacon’s novel is certainly a substantial and well-wrought affair which invites the larger
questions on the part of readers. The individual chapters have been nominated for and won several awards and the novel is an engrossing read which also has a feminist dimension. It is a good second novel. It is also a good introduction to the early history of photography and the key debates that the medium first aroused, debates which follow us to the contemporary moment. In the Blink of an Eye is therefore, in my view, a richly rewarding read.

Click here to order Ali Bacon’s In the Blink of an Eye from Linen Press.

About the Publisher:

Linen Press is “a small, independent publisher run by women, for
women”. It published its first book in 2006 to much acclaim and strong sales. The Press
describes itself as the only indie women’s press in the UK. Its policy is “to encourage and
promote women writers and to give voice to a wide range of perspectives and themes that are relevant to women”. Linen Press, in its own words, aims to “publish books that are diverse, challenging, and surprising”. The collective background of the writers in the publishing house is described as “a multi-coloured patchwork of cultures, countries, ages and writing styles”.

Review by Suneel Mehmi

Suneel is currently researching the relationship between photography and law in fiction from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s. He is a scholar and an amateur writer, poet, singer/songwriter, musician and artist. Suneel is a member of the British Asian community and lives in East London. He holds degrees in Law and English Literature from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Brunel University and the University of Westminster.

My Europe Anthology Launch – Review

MY EUROPE ANTHOLOGY BOOK LAUNCH HOSTED BY CONTEMPORARY SMALL PRESS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF WESTMINSTER ON THURSDAY 8TH MARCH 2018

Patricia Borlenghi, publisher at Patrician Press, gave a short introduction about how the MY EUROPE anthology came into being. She is a passionate European and wanted to publish a collection on what Europe, the EU and Brexit meant to poets, writers, politicians and lawyers she was able to contact to contribute to the anthology.

Andrew Graham, director of Europaeum, an educational charity, to which Patrician Press will be donating from proceeds of book sales, gave a short talk about the charity.

The contributors to the anthology who then read were as follows:

Suzy Adderley reading her Neither Black nor White, an analysis of the complexities of the Brexit situation.

Wersha Bharadwa reading Living History. This is set in a re-enactment section of a museum and underlies the paradox that influential Indians had suffered being in the British Empire, but that the British felt that they were being colonised by Europe.

Catherine Coldstream read three poems: The Conjuring, the one she contributed to My Europe; one from our first anthology, Refugees and Peacekeepers; and a new one about her mother, who died recently.

There was a short interval, then George Szirtes who came to England after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, read his poignant poem, Je Suis Européen.

He was followed by Giacinto Palmieri, a stand-up comedian with a PhD in bilingual comedy who read his Because I Could (or What the EU Did for Me).

Last but not least was Petra McQueen reading her story, Fall Out, about a couple whose relationship disintegrates when they find themselves on opposing sides of the Brexit debate.

Anna Johnson, the editor of the anthology was present as were Mark Brayley, Cecilia Hall, Ken Smith and Stephen Timms MP who all contributed to the anthology.

Many, many thanks to the Contemporary Small Press for hosting the event, especially Leigh, Georgina and Sally.

Patricia Borlenghi.

Images by Georgina Colby and Sally-Shakti Willow.

Click here to order the My Europe Anthology from Patrician Press.

INFLUX PRESS WINS REPUBLIC OF CONSCIOUSNESS PRIZE FOR ATTRIB. AND OTHER STORIES BY ELEY WILLIAMS 

The Hackney-based independent publisher Influx Press was last night, Tuesday 20 March, announced as the winner of the 2018 Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses – for publishing Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams.

Influx Press – a tiny outfit run out of east London by Kit Caless and Sanya Semakula – published Eley Williams’s debut collection last year. The book, which is centred upon the difficulties of communication, has gone on to earn widespread critical acclaim from the likes of The Guardian, The Telegraph, the New Statesman, and the London Review of Books.

Neil Griffiths, the founder of the prize, said: “ This is exactly what the Republic of Consciousness Prize was set up to reward. A small press that is so focussed on what it wants to publish it can see unusually brilliant writing more clearly – especially when it comes to short stories. 

“Eley Williams is that rare thing, a deeply serious writer working on a playful level. In the middle of her story Smote, I was floored. I realised I was reading a prose poet of a very high calibre indeed, and I said to myself: this book will win. The judges agreed.” 

Attrib.

Returning for the second year in 2018, the Republic of Consciousness Prize rewards independent publishers from the UK and Ireland that take the risk to publish brave and bold literary fiction. It is open to presses that have no more than five full-time employees.

Influx Press will receive £5,000, with £3,000 going to the publisher and £2,000 to the author. The press has won over the shortlisted publishers Les Fugitives, Little Island Press, Charco Press, Dostoevsky Wannabe, and Galley Beggar Press, all of which will receive £1,500 each.

Influx Press started life in 2012, with an anthology of stories about the rapid changes taking place in Hackney. What was supposed to be a one-off publication turned into a small press success story: Influx has published 18 books since, including Jeffrey Boakye’s Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials and the Meaning of Grime, Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities, and Chimene Suleyman’s Outside Looking On.

The press recently launched a Kickstarter campaign in a bid to grow its business, backed by industry figures including Nikesh Shukla and Max Porter. In November last year, it opened its submissions exclusively to women of colour to expand the range of voices and scope of work it publishes.

Join the conversation and find out more at: http://www.republicofconsciousness.com 

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Influx Press and Eley Williams: Republic of Consciousness Prize Winners 2018. L-R: Gary Budden, Sanya Semakula, Eley Williams, Kit Caless. Photograph: Sally-Shakti Willow

About Influx Press:

Influx Press publish stories from the margins of culture, specific geographical spaces and sites of resistance that remain under-explored in mainstream literature. Based in East London, they are run by Kit Caless and Sanya Semakula. www.influxpress.com 

About Eley Williams: 

Eley Williams lives and work in Ealing. Her writing has appeared in the journals Ambit, Night & Day, The Dial and Structo. She teaches both creative writing and children’s literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she was recently awarded her doctorate. www.eleywilliams.com 

About the Republic of Consciousness Prize: 

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses rewards independent publishers from the UK and Ireland that take the risk to publish brave and bold literary fiction. The prize is sponsored by the TLS, the University of Westminster, and the Cornwall-based printer TJ International and was awarded a Grant for the Arts by the Arts Council England this year. www.republicofconsciousness.com 

The 2018 shortlist contained:

Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams (Influx)

Blue Self-Portrait by Noemi Lefevbre (Les Fugitives)

Darker with the Lights On by David Haydn (Little Island Press)

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (Charco Press)

Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe)

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar Press)

About Neil Griffiths 

Neil Griffiths is an award-winning novelist. He is the author of Betrayal in Naples, which won the Writers’ Club first novel award, and the Costa Best Novel Award-winning Saving Caravaggio. His new novel, As God Might Be, is an epic novel which “deals uncompromisingly honestly with the human complexities of encountering and speaking about God” (Rowan Williams). It is published by the small press Dodo Ink.

 

Neil Griffiths and Eley Williams RofC Prize 2018
Neil Griffiths and Eley Williams: Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018. Photograph: Georgina Colby

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Family Fortunes

We That Are Young, Preti Taneja: Galley Beggar Press (2017)

Shortlisted for the 2018 Republic of Consciousness Prize

‘Set your watch. India time.’

The sudden resignation of a tyrannical CEO threatens to tear a carefully constructed world apart. Born to a Maharaja and his 15-year-old wife, Devraj Bapuji has invested in industries as diverse as hotels, textile mills and transport to build his extensive Company. In the right place at the right time, he has profited from the new capitalism of contemporary India but his attempt to divide his legacy between his family unexpectedly precipitates the rapid unravelling of all their lives.

The action moves seamlessly between New Delhi and Srinigar, Kashmir. Devraj has three daughters and no sons, a fact he laments despite acting like a doting father. His youngest, Sita, has run away, leaving her married elder sisters, Radha and Gargi, to pick up the pieces. Gargi steps forward as Acting Chairman of the Company, trying to introduce positive employment practices, particularly for women. She plans to move the Company forward but faces deeply ingrained misogyny. Conservative traditions override even familial love as women are both idolised for purity and considered possessions for men to play with.

‘Our Indian women are a special breed in the world. Like beautiful phools they bloom best in beds, when they are well tended… just tell her what you want, she will never say “No.”’

Meanwhile, close family friend Jivan Singh returns home after fifteen years in America. The illegitimate son of a wealthy married man and a beautiful dancer, as a child he lived at his Dad’s stately home before being banished to America. He discovers a transformed New Delhi, wealthy and thriving at the forefront of India’s new status as a world competitor. Jivan is tormented by unresolved childhood issues and feels intimidated by the ostentatious ‘VVIP’ lifestyle of his former playmates. He attempts to acclimatise but unspoken rules conspire against him and at his homecoming there is a sad sense that he will always be considered an outsider, even in the country of his birth.

‘Here, of course, they will see his American smile, his suit and tie, first class, pure gold. The truth is, he is Jivan Singh, half brother to Jeet Singh, son of Ranjit. He was born on this Indian earth, he waited all this time to return.’

We That Are Young

This epic family saga explores complex universal themes including heritage, social class, political unrest, and the fragile nature of identity. It is disturbing how quickly the ties that bind are broken and how easily the truth is manipulated. As a reader, my loyalties were severely tested as the characters are so well drawn and sympathetic. When things unravel, likeable protagonists turn very nasty indeed.

The story is told from the points of view of five key characters and seeing things from the perspective of different generations provides a deeper insight into unfolding events. It is based on King Lear but don’t let that put you off if you haven’t read it. Those familiar with the play can enjoy spotting details like Devraj’s hundred young trainees replacing King Lear’s knights, and perhaps the inevitable horrific violence won’t be quite as unexpected. But being a Shakespeare fan isn’t essential to enjoying the novel.

Preti Taneja makes shrewd observations about modern PR as profiles are raised and images managed, disguising what is rotten beneath. Protecting the Company name and reputation comes above all else. The family home is called a farm for legal purposes but no farming is done there and the flowers look real but have no scent. And the murderous Devraj is described fondly by the media as an ‘animal lover and environmentalist’ despite owning a pet tiger and beating a servant half to death.

We That Are Young is a sumptuous feast of language and culture, written in English effortlessly interspersed with untranslated Hindi. Every sentence is meticulously crafted, instilling the exquisite prose with meaning and ensuring that no page is wasted in this huge feat of a book.

Click here to buy We That Are Young direct from Galley Beggar Press. 

About the Publisher

Galley Beggar Press is committed to producing beautiful books. Nurturing unique and innovative writers and publishing works of the highest quality and integrity, they also believe in the ‘fantastic potential of ebooks to reach new audiences, to spread our writers’ precious words around the world and to revive and revitalise books that would otherwise either be out of print or lost on the backlist’.

Review by Becky Danks

Becky Danks is a creative writer, book reviewer and dog lover. She recently won City University’s City Writes competition for her short story The Anniversary. She is a judge of flash fiction for the Hysteria Writing Competition. She is also a Shakespeare fan. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123. Website: www.beckydanks.com

 

 

 

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018 – Shortlist

The Republic of Consciousness Prize Shortlist 2018 was announced in Manchester last night.  Congratulations to all the writers and publishers who made it through!

RofC shortlist 2018

Attrib: Eley Williams (Influx) – Read our review here.


Blue Self-Portrait: Noemi Lefevbre (Les Fugitives) – Read our review here.


Darker with the Lights On: David Hayden (Little Island) – Read our review here.


Die, My Love: Ariana Harwicz (Charco) – Read our review here.


Gaudy Bauble: Isabel Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe) – Read our review here.


We That Are Young: Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar) – Read our review here.

If you’d like to read the books on the Republic of Consciousness shortlist, we recommend buying direct from the publishers.  The more people reading these books, the better.  Independent publishers are usually very small operations, and the more control they can take over their distribution and sales, and the bigger the slice of the pie they get, the better for them.

So, follow the links above to get your hands on the RofC shortlisted books!

Jacaranda Books and Words of Colour launch 20 in 2020

Jacaranda Books, in partnership with Words of Colour Productions, is extremely proud to announce a new initiative to publish 20 Black British writers in the year 2020.

Works will include adult fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Having been, in recent years, a leader in the development and exposure of new voices from around the globe, with an excellent list of award-winning books and authors the result, Jacaranda has a proven track record of developing and publishing diverse writing. The diversity-led publisher now looks to focus the vision on the development and exposure of Black British talent.

This news follows Jacaranda founder Valerie Brandes making the Powerlist 2018 for her
contribution to diverse and inclusive publishing. Brandes said regarding the initiative:

‘We have been very fortunate to publish outstanding writers both abroad and here at home. To have Black British writers such as Stephen Thompson and Irenosen Okojie on our list, each at very different stages in their careers, enabled us to contribute directly to what we see as a growing pool of excellence in Black British writing. Driving this ambitious publishing initiative is our unwavering belief there are so many more talents to uncover, and our continued determination to provide a platform for such voices.’

Founded by Joy Francis, Words of Colour Productions is a creative communications agency that promotes, facilitates and develops writers of colour – of all genres, collaborates with arts and creative industries to increase cultural inclusion, and creates multi-platform and multi-media projects to reshape the single narrative misrepresenting culturally diverse communities.

The open submissions period will run from February 28th 2018 through August 31st 2018.

Submission guidelines and further information to follow shortly.

All queries should be directed office@jacarandabooksartmusic.co.uk with subject 2020.

2020 partners

He built a house and next to it a church

As a God Might Be, Neil Griffiths: Dodo Ink

‘I don’t believe much of what goes for basic Christianity. It might be that everything I believe would be rejected as heresy. Actually, there is no “might.”’

When Proctor McCullough decides to desert his comfortable London life to build a church on a clifftop, nobody knows what to make of it: McCullough is not religious. Is it a midlife crisis? Has he gone mad? Is he suffering a spiritual breakdown in a secular age, where identity is shaped by wealth and status.

Or has he really been chosen by God for a new revelation. McCullough finds himself torn between love for his family and a group of local drifters who are helping him to build his church. When one of these drifters commits a shocking act to test his beliefs, McCullough finds himself pushed to the very limits of understanding and forgiveness.

As a God Might Be is an epic novel, and Proctor McCullough is a complex and deeply human character struggling to cope with the grand issues of modern life.

Let me say straight away that—while I have a few small quibbles—I think this novel is a triumph. Griffiths had me from Contents, for I was enraptured by a book brave enough (or brazen, or mad enough) to divide itself into New Testament and then Old Testament (note the inversion) and then divide its subject matter further into books as though it were, self consciously, a theological text with beguiling titles such as ‘Tetragrammaton’, the Hebrew name for God transliterated in four letters, YHWH or JHVW, articulated as Yahweh or Jehovah. For me, the book felt like an adventure because of the attention to detail here, not to mention its inclusion of the bold acclamation of Abraham—‘Here I am’—which prefaces the book and its first chapter beginning with Pascal,

‘You must wager.

It is not optional,

You are embarked’

Proctor, in embarking, upends his life, with its pains and worries, his loves, his children and his work, itself about conflict, the worst that can happen and a study of what it is that drives us or compacts us when we are in crisis. The central theme—embarking, let us call it—recalls William Golding’s 1964 book The Spire, a novel that traced the journey of Jocelin, a dean who believes God has directed him to erect a spire above Salisbury Cathedral. That book, like As a God Might Be, is both a meditation on faith and a study of those who question the sanity of believers or, in the case of Proctor, of those who believe they have been chosen for a task. I loved that book, too, but here, with Griffiths is something a little different;

First, you’re assuming I’m a Christian. But what does that actually mean?’ Proctor asks of his clifftop building cohort. ‘What kind of battle is someone in for if they want to announce an authentic interest in the existence of God?’

Proctor is imperfect, selfish, sententious, clever and boorish. He is weak when he should challenge—do I have a drink with or lay flat the man who slept with my partner?—but I think that this is rather the point and a fascinating tension in the novel: that he is and remains all those things, yet you cannot take your eyes off him and off the process. And I’m minded, too, of the biblical precedent that I’ve not seen referred to as yet in other writings on Griffiths’s book. I thought of it immediately and it was another reason I was drawn into the text. By biblical precedent I mean, look at the prophets and look at some of the peculiar things they were commanded to do. Hosea was told by God to marry a prostitute; Ezekiel was asked to dig a wall, shave off his hair and beard and weigh the trimmings in a scale, and once made his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth so he was unable to speak; Moses most definitely did not want to be a prophet and Jonah, called and called, decided to run away. I think these callings and their responses are fascinating whether or not you believe in God, whether or not you believe the bible is bunkum and Christianity—or all religion—the source of nothing but conflict and separation, or think Proctor (quoting Terry), is ‘fucking nuts!’or that God is all delusion, as Richard Dawkins (whose screaming fascinates me) would have it. The psychological process is compelling.

            He built a house and next to it a church.

Take this example, a dinner party at Proctor’s house, with his partner Holly and their mostly egregious friends, whom you cannot actually believe they entertain (a flaw in the plot, for me: a quibble. Their friend Simon is different and, ultimately, in crisis over the vapidity of his friends’ morals as he sees them: I wanted to see this developed, perhaps as a counterpoint to what is occurring with Proctor). Proctor makes a speech and it is excruciating, the embarrassment is visceral as he explains to his friends what has happened, with his notes on the table.

‘This is what I think. Or what I thought. Something…God is the transcendent Other, for whom creation, what we know as life, is a gratuitous act of love, a dispossession of a portion of His infinite creativity given over to our thriving…’

Proctor is sick and embarrassed, but he has the strength to press on, though he knows he could stop now and that ‘outside, the air was full of the promise of spring, of the simple bounty of physical life.’ He wants to be held by Holly or ‘squashed’ between his twin children; he knows what he has said is irrevocable, yet it means nothing and he is torn between these things: a purpose with meaning and just a string of clever words, for he is good at stringing together clever words; he gets paid for it in his job as an ‘atrociologist’. And then there is this: I confess I was in tears over here and am not ashamed of that.

‘Perhaps that’s all it would take to slip through the infinite transparency back into the world. All he needed was to focus on his family, turn sideways, draw his body up and slip around. But it was impossible. There was no narrow passageway, however determined he was and slender he became. You cannot disbelieve what you believe. There is no choice’, the lyrical beauty of which is punctured by and, ‘What a fool he was. What a stupid fucking fool.

Holly looked around the table and then at him. She paused. ‘I’m not sure you’re being entirely honest, are you, Mac?’

Human, imperfect and others understandably sceptical or derisory of what he is doing. And yet we recall the prefatory quote from Pascal that I mentioned:

‘You must wager.

It is not optional,

You are embarked’

I think the scope of As a God Might Be is remarkable; that it is clever and ambitious, subtle and brave; the fine writer and booktuber, Kate Armstrong, saw it as a Victorian novel in its preoccupations, then offering comparison with Middlemarch. Yet I see it as fresh and modern, too, and hope to discuss this further with others. There are other contextual factors that I’ve been pondering, also. William Golding wrote The Spire in fourteen days, its own miracle, about building a spire above a cathedral that is itself, with no foundations, a miracle. I am interested in the process of writing this book because Griffiths is quite frank, at text’s end, about how long it took and about the reserves of energy it took. There is such candour, such generosity, I think, in telling the reader this (I always read the acknowledgements pages) and I suspect anyone would have been enormously daunted by examining and confronting eschatology (itself the title of the fourth chapter) over an extended period. I believe, without reserve, that encountering the last things, what we think happens to us when we die, is a central tenet of our lives and of the governance of our behaviour, the girding, or not, of our mental health; axiomatic of what we believe in. We can run from those questions, but whatever we decide—grave worms or eternity; atoms moving in and out of form or the transcendence of the soul to be with God—this is not a question we can evade. We do, I think, need to see we are ‘embarked’. I also think what we think happens when we die, does have a daily pull on our lives. Our fears—our darkest fears—of the deepest loss and our own personal annihilation are surely related to what we regard as new life, frightening judgement or end stops and grave worms. Might this not inform our decisions and judgements? Whether our life is lived with meditative space in it, or at top speed because ‘this is not a rehearsal’ to quote a fridge magnet someone gave me (which I actually hate). I can tell you, both as a questingly religious person for whom the quality of doubt is finer than the quality of faith (I’m paraphrasing T.S. Eliot’s summation of Tennyson’s great poem of loss and grief, ‘In Memoriam’), and as someone who has had many bouts of mental ill health, that the deepest darkest end-fear — eschatology—was there, and rattling me in my loneliness. I see such poignancy in Proctor’s thoughts and actions.

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So this simple statement from the author moves me and makes me warm to the book further:

‘This book has taken years to write; one might argue most of my life, or at least the thirty five years since my state school teacher…gave me a copy of Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky.’

I think that we need more books which test us in this way. I also—and I am no expert in publishing matters and how one decides what will be read, what will sell and so on—cannot see why a theological novel should be an obsolete thing, as seems to have been an argument raised around this book. Why? Is God not done these days, like ‘We don’t do God’ in the words of Alastair Campbell, once interrupting Tony Blair? There are a number of fairly recent books which explore faith, (though none, I would say, quite like this) and I think you’d have a hard time denying the immediacy of a book about theological matters to those of faith, different faiths, all around the world, but also to those who have decided they are atheists but want to see an exegesis of sorts on the subject. And why should it be assumed that those who aren’t sure, don’t know, have never thought or tried not to, would not be interested in a book that deals with (to quote Rowan Williams on the book), ‘encountering and speaking about God’? In writing this, I am mindful of an article by Griffiths himself in ‘The Irish Times’ earlier this year. In ‘God and the Author’, he wrote about how difficult the route to publication was, including the loss of his agent. But step forward the independent press, in this case Dodo Ink, not afraid to take on a risky book. I quote,

‘Route to publication was difficult. I lost my agent: he didn’t think readers were interested in characters who were interested in such things. Rejection letters began to arrive. One publisher, who very generously described the novel as potentially award-winning, claimed as “an atheist, materialist and humanist” she couldn’t support it. But it wasn’t just atheism. The oldest Christian publisher in the world (The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge) called in the novel and then rejected it as “theologically unsound”. This came as no surprise. When my friend suggested I seek support in the US, my response was that while they might read it, their next step was more likely to burn it.’

And I was fascinated by this; the assumption and the dissention here. Frankly, if all of it held true, then Dostoevsky’s books, which Griffiths cites as a major influence (and which I would cite as some of the finest books written), would have no chance. And it seems to me that an important discussion of impulse, experience and encounter, should not be dismissed as ‘theologically unsound’. That is not only a diminution of another’s experience but also missing the point—hence, as Griffiths has said,

‘As a novel As a God Might Be allows me to set aside the question of the existence or not of God, but still ask what his nature might be – a question science isn’t interested in, and, I’m afraid, no longer a question religion can rightfully claim to answer. It’s time for the novel to enter the debate.’

Those of faith should not be offended by a brilliant and honest exploration, either. I am Anglo-Catholic; my husband is a Benedictine oblate (that is, a lay-person attached to a monastery) and thus I hang around monks and talk to them; we have lunch together sometimes. Their faith is brilliant, but difficult: they are not rescued from the pains and depressions of life by cant prayer or cosiness with a God who has chosen them. No, they work at, repeatedly, daily, and their thoughts and discussions are expansive. There: life inside a monastery. I’m taking them Griffiths’s book. Can’t wait for that. And actually, there is something more at stake here because can’t novels encourage us to enter belief systems outside our own, and empathise with people of different cultures, worldviews and backgrounds? I know from discussing the book, that other readers don’t see it as primarily a religious novel because Proctor’s central dilemmas can be relatable for anyone. His doubt, and the existential crisis of his life, is manifested in a religious experience. In the hands of Camus in The Outsider or The Rebel, or for Sartre in Nausea, how might this look? We’re back to eschatology again and we will all, though perhaps some will push it away for longer or more effectively than others, go through something similar in our time—that is, with or without God.

‘You’re building a church; I want to sit in my chair. You want to spread the love; I feel like killing someone.’

‘Fine lines, Terry.’

‘Lines nonetheless, my friend.’

‘I want to help you.’

‘Of course you do. Maybe God sent meto test you.’

‘I don’t believe that…in that.’

It fascinates me, this book. Proctor is managing his life well; he is comfortable enough; he loves his partner and his twins. It is, on the surface, a tidy middle class existence, and into this comes a revelation for Proctor which, while he has read and thought and explored philosophy theology and faith—otherwise how could he expound at such great detail on the subject?—is entirely inconvenient. It is brilliant, but it is painful. He explores the notion that God has chosen him to build a church, finds common land and gets to it. In this, he is both reckless, selfish and extraordinarily brave. And here’s where Griffiths excels. He has written a book which is a sweeping exploration of faith and of the nature of God; he has created a text which displays a good deal of learning and managed to hold this in tension with brilliant and convincing characterisation and balance the sublime with the banal elements of life. I loathe all of their friends; they are reptilian (though one, Simon, as I said, I feel I want to know more) and self interested, ingenerous middle class dinner party folk. It is against the wine and the cheeseboard that Mac first explains what it is he must do and it’s brilliantly realised.

[Plot spoilers ahead]

I’d actually like to push them all off the Dorset cliff. I’d like to push Proctor off sometimes. He can be intensely dislikeable and full of high sentence. He is a hypocrite; it’s as though, by bringing another woman to orgasm without actually having full sex with her, he lets himself off the hook. He does nothing to properly challenge Lucian the entirely unapologetic seducer of his partner, Holly, a man who comments, unashamedly, that he had warned him this might happen. Griffiths’s portrayal of flawed, broken, repulsive humanity is wonderful. The rustic drifters who help him build the church are a tremendous counterpoint to the dinner party and professional swamp and, ironically (that is, if you’re inclined to jump to such conclusions), their intellectual engagement with what Proctor is trying to do, is much heftier than that of his London friends. The portrayal of Nat I’ve seen mildy criticised as being one dimensional, but I disagree; this is the irony of the situation; he is forced into a dimension and constrained by a family which is oppressive and does not understand him. I found this profoundly moving—to see the man-boy in deep pain, yet with so much love and potential brimming. And to see what becomes of him. His appalling end. I loved the insouciant Rebecca, the complexity and closeness of the life she shares with her mother; it makes for uncomfortable reading, but it also rings true. None of it is tidy, all ragged. Rebecca is deeply clever, sexy and a temptation (though it is a dalliance with her mother which occurs for Proctor). And Terry. This is interesting indeed.

Griffiths mentions in his acknowledgements and elsewhere, the influence of Dostoevsky. He refers to Crime and Punishment, and I had it in mind when reading about Terry; Crime and Punishment is a thriller which is nonetheless infused with philosophical, religious and social commentary, and in which a young man plans the murder of someone whom no-one will miss and no-one will mourn; a book in which the notion of a just crime—and by a man of genius—which transgresses moral law is explored. Why does Terry do as he does? I thought, primarily, of The Brothers Karamazov which is, to summarise, a spiritual drama; a wrestling with faith, doubt, judgment, and reason; it is set against a modernizing Russia and its plot centres upon the subject of patricide, a crime which might well have been committed by Terry in the book. Terry is on a wilfully self destructive path and so tests faith and the world by committing a similarly wanton crime; it is Nat but could, he tells Proctor, have been him first and I do feel that the delicately limmed relationship between Proctor and Terry is part friendship, part father-son. Terry is rootless, alcoholic and suffering; wanton, because of it. He has not been well educated and yet he has an intellectual drive and spiritual perspicacity that had me in tears because he was also on the slide, hurtling, in fact, towards a cataclysm. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan talks to Smerdyakov about Fyodor Pavlovich’s death; Smerdyakov eventually confesses to Ivan that he, and not Dmitri, committed the old man’s murder. But he also says—and here I see a parallel with the things that the dying Terry says to Proctor, never letting off the hook the man who is there in his final hours—that Ivan is also implicated in the crime: the philosophical lessons Ivan taught Smerdyakov about the impossibility of evil in a world without a God, made Smerdyakov capable of committing murder. Terry commits a brutal act in the most brutal way to prove a point: because he could. Who is Terry testing? God, Mac, himself, the world? All four.

So do read the book. Read it for its risks and dilemmas; its beautiful descriptions of stone, sand and water; of building, physical sensation and spiritual thirst. Read it to wonder about the personal nature of God and ‘As a God Might Be’, in the words of Wallace Stevens; read it if you’re wondering or you’ve stopped. Notice how well Griffiths handles erotic detail, uncomfortable humour, a London street or how children interact with their siblings. There is more to explore than I have space to tell you about here.

Tolstoy thought that Dostoevsky was a man of little accomplishment or expansiveness of mind, though he said he ‘admired his heart’. But a copy of The Brothers Karamazov was found next to Tolstoy’s nightstand when he died. I’ve always liked this little detail. I am now re-reading it, and I’ve got Neil Griffiths’s book and, my new encounter, Wallace Stevens, on mine. Hopefully, not a portent, but there because it is joyous to explore, ‘…our painful, confusing and at times burdensome freedom to love.’

Click here to buy As A God Might Be by Neil Griffiths from Dodo Ink.

About the Publisher:

Dodo Ink publishes original fiction, with a focus on risk-taking, imaginative novels; particularly books which don’t fall into easy marketing categories and don’t compromise their intelligence or style to fit in with trends.

Review by Anna Vaught

Anna is a novelist, essayist, poet, editor, reviewer and also a secondary English teacher, tutor, mentor to young people, mental health campaigner and mum to a large litter. A great champion of the small presses, she reviews their books and writes for them: novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), novella, The Life of Almost (2018) and poems and essays with Patrician Press and Emma Press. Saving Lucia, Bluemoose Books (2020).  Anna is working on her fifth novel.