Gaudy Bauble

Has there ever been a Lesbian Zoo?

Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner: Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals

Shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018

Olivia Laing was not wrong in saying “the future of the queer avant-garde is safe with Isabel Waidner”, as Waidner creates a topsy-turvy, destabilising, dismantling, distorting post-identity Britain inhabited by Gilbert & George-esque lesbians, Peggy “the let’s-get-the-hell-out-of-here Pegasus”, hoofed fibreglass sculptures, Healthy-lips, chalk faeries, a transarmy with red question marks compressing the left-facing heads and the “phantom of prohibited futures”. In this novel, the riff raff are running the show and you’re in for a treat.  Gaudy Bauble explores the political potential of innovative writing at the intersections with intersectional subjectivities – issues of gender, class, sexuality and race are at the forefront of this short novel, which seeks to disrupt normative social and literary structures at every turn.

Do you remember playing make-believe games as a child, engrossed in your own imagination where a teddy bear could suddenly be an evil genius and a pencil could become a frog? Where your toys took on a life of their own as characters in a twisted plot that only made sense to you, as you hadn’t learnt the “rules” of the game yet and anything could still be anything? Waidner creates this world anew in a queer dystopian utopia, expanding the possibilities of identity, narrative and style beyond any limits one might usually find within a novel. The reader is reminded that not only is imagination for adults too, but that our abilities to imagine, to go beyond categories, labels, genres, constructs and stereotypes, is only limited by our own boundaries, preconceptions, and compliance with social norms to keep them all intact. The best way to read this novel, therefore, is to shed those constructs and enjoy the rollercoaster ride.

Waidner breaks down conventions, literary genres, historical stereotypes and identities with style and finesse; if you let the text hit you right, moments of poignancy find themselves enmeshed with humorous undertones. Picture the character P.I. Belahg finding themselves wearing a bikini over their clothes, as they sleepily put it on without the realisation of what it was, only to awaken fully to the nightmare childhood trauma of gender conforming clothing and succumb to a meltdown. Here, the bikini acts as a trigger for memories of the “gender police” who “had seen to the dyke child being taught many life lessons. Lest she become a bulldagger. Lest she become a fully-fledged, raving, raging, reckoning and incorrigible adult powerdagger. Strong and unhinged. What if she organised. Already there had been Techtelmechtel with that wildgirl interpretation of John Taylor. Girl-on-girl hanky-panky. Innocent, but. Best nipped in the bud.” Waidner tackles age-old perceptions of lesbianism in subtle and effective ways. The reader catches a glimpse of Pre-Bikini Atoll, a 12-year old from West Croydon – whose name also gestures toward histories of colonialism, occupation, oppression and nuclear weapons testing at the site of Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean – and who preferred gender neutral pronouns: the past merges with the present in a significant moment of transformation whereby Bikini Atoll is “born”, as a performance act in a cabaret troupe called ‘The Avant-garde of the Oppressed’. This scenario ends in a poignant recognition of the struggles and pressures of gender conformity and the ways in which clothes can come to signify this in society, as Blulip, in drag as Painlevé Hypercamp, assists in providing the “context in which a bikini on a butch meant genderqueer camp rather than normative femininity.” These two characters partake in “Hypocamp micromovement […] a strangely microfied, butoh-like, and restrained full-body expression of gay exuberance” – an act I only wish I could see in real life!


Historical gay identities creep in and start taking control of the workshop as queer identities wrestle with a history that still haunts their present. As team Reco.Mö hijack, “Combating A Localised Evil” by airing a be-on-the-look-out and attempt to locate Cadavre Exquis for a Mördervogel that none of the characters can truly define or draw, Hilary adorns Bobák’s abdomen and face with maroon-coloured lipstick in the shape of tiny kidneys only for this creation to evoke the haunting inscription of sarcoma, an illness that shares a lineage of being known as the mark of aids. Present and past collide in the body’s inscriptions, highlighting how the body tells all, how it has been marked as the bearer of identity, of histories and of stigmas one does not choose. Waidner’s ability to swiftly alter the perception and representation of the smallest things, whether that be lipstick marks, hoofed figurines, chalk faeries, glittery faces or carpets that hold entire ecosystems of germs, continuously wrong-foots the reader in the best of ways.

Taking us through a gay taxonomy of anthropomorphic animals deemed appropriate for gay stereotypes, the reader is introduced to the gay zoo, a newspaper article entitled Who’s Who at the Zoo? that lists male homosexuals as Gay Bears, Owls, Cygnets, Pussycats, Gazelles, Afghans, and Marmosets. Waidner addresses the lack of a lesbian equivalent with an amusing tangent about creating lesbian counterparts. Had there been a lesbian zoo? And if there was one, what would there be in comparison to the cubs, otters, and other animals that allowed gay men to strip themselves of their humanness and take on animal qualities? Detailing the scenario with creations, such as Ursula “a lesbian-identified Bear, or a Bear-identified lesbian”, the reader sees the woeful lack of a lesbian history and how, in a post-identity Britain that would prefer to forget the past before women have had a chance to create their own equivalents, women are left to grapple with their own makeshift identities, often restricted to the femme-butch dichotomy that cannot seem to be shaken. Waidner addresses crucial issues and hard truths, but wraps them up in glitter and imagination, so that the reader doesn’t fully realise the richness of Waidner’s narrative as it creates a present so haunted and full of the past that brought us to it. There is no comparing this novel to previous texts, for it is one of a kind and will take many more reads in order to fully engage with all the references and attention to detail that Waidner has brought to these eccentric, quirky and queer characters and the world they inhabit.

Click here to buy Isabel Waidner’s Gaudy Bauble direct from Dostoyevsky Wannabe.

About the Publisher:

Dostoyevsky Wannabe publish independent/experimental/underground things: We publish a lot of books, any types of books − short books, long books, flash fiction, poetry, anthologies, samplers, chapbooks, experimental things.

Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.



Darker with the Lights On

Darker with the Lights On, David Hayden: Little Island Press

Shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018

“The mind is a slope and the words run off like water and who knows where they go?” (from ‘Memory House‘)

Darker with the Lights On is a collection of 20 short stories by David Hayden, a prolific writer of short fiction, published by Little Island Press.  

With an abundance of imagination through surreal and unbounded worlds beyond and beneath the world we inhabit, Darker with the Lights On is like taking a train in the dark, the carriage so brightly lit that you struggle to see a world you know is there, beyond the pane of glass. You cup your hands around your eyes and press your nose against the window, trying to see into the darkness, only to be confronted by your own reflection. You cannot see past the ghost of yourself. If only they’d turn the lights off, so you might see clearly the world outside. It is this strange juxtaposition of sense, sensation and rationalising that Hayden captures so brilliantly in this collection.

“The dark was outside, thick and blue, while in the dining room light glinted off silk and silver becoming general glitter that, if seen from the night, would have signified a happy party.” (from ‘The Bread that was Broken’)

Hayden inhabits nowhere places and nothings as intrinsic parts of life. He asks what it means to call somewhere a place and what it means, in fact, to say or do anything at all.

“The train travelled through quiet places with unused piles of gravel, abandoned cars, hard patch farms […] Michael paid close attention to the gradual aggregation of the city, trying to discover the point at which nowhere became somewhere.” (from ‘Last Call for the Hated’)

The stories are works of metafiction that assert the idea that the most radical, surreal, illusory imaginings can be brought to the page:

“Words are just mute smudges until you know what they mean, and when you put them together they can tell all manner of things. There’s plenty you can’t say with words. You can fall through words down into a seething belly world of billions of objects and notions, all shrieking and hiding.” (from ‘How to Read a Picture Book’)


Hayden constructs pockets of hyper-reality that are nonsensical and radiant: “When you die – when you die – you revive in the world of the last book you were reading before your… demise” (from ‘Reading’). It is writing that reaches for the depths of our minds’ possibility. It asks: what can be imagined? Beyond sense, rationality, logic. On reading, I admit, I became confrontational, annoyed, indifferent, dozing off. How dare you, Hayden, try to test the limits of my mind! But I caught glimpses, symbolic moments of meaning, which pulled me in, and continue to do so. Mine was the response of a reader tired, rushed, distracted, shut off, but I fought the shadow of myself to find ways into the text that Hayden offers wholeheartedly.

“I grow calmer and darker, waiting for the world to fall away not knowing whether it will fall up or down.” (from ‘Memory House’)

Much lies dormant beneath the juddering page inflicted with Hayden’s prose, poised to ambush the reader with its brilliance. This is writing that it is a pleasure to write about – to think about with as much vigour as if it were your own. That is what it asks of you: to be curious, clenched and to grapple with consciousness in the act of reading.

“Books let you circle around time, find the root of time, lose time, recover time.” (from ‘How to Read a Picture Book’)

Often returning to the first line in the last, each story picks words out of themselves, repeating and filtering down its own language. Time is a curious factor throughout, how it passes and how it is experienced. Each story balances philosophical, psychological and physiological elements, and contributes to the balance of the collection as a whole. Not a balance serene and unwavering, but a struggling and unstable attempt at equilibrium that is inexplicably human. 

Click here to buy David Hayden’s Darker with the Lights On direct from Little Island Press.

About the Publisher:

Little Island Press is an independent publisher of fiction, poetry and essays. Founded in 2016, it publishes innovative, intellectually ambitious writing in elegant editions designed by the award-winning design studio typographic research unit.

Review by Kirsty Watling

Kirsty Watling is a writer, bookseller and recent Literature graduate specialising in twentieth century literature, visual culture and critical theory.


Die, My Love

Die, My Love, Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff): Charco Press.  

Shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018.

I lay back in the grass among fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular.

From its opening line, Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love is both intense and stultifying: a suffocating pulse that rises to burst the skin’s surface without ever spilling over into a flood of freedom.  The knife that could be used, but instead the one who wields it lays back in the grass. Prone and passive.  Yet the protagonist of this shattering short novel is anything but passive.  Moving through the thick sludge of her own desperate depression, she feels cut off from those around her in the outside world, and numb to her own experience.  But her actions and her inactions affect the lives of everyone in her life in increasingly violent and destructive ways, as she searches for the freedom she both desires and despises.

I take long swings from the bottle, breathing through my nose and wishing, quite simply, that I were dead.

The novel’s unnamed narrator is a young wife and mother at odds with the circumstances of her own life and increasingly distant from her own sense of herself.  In a novel that narrates exceptionally effectively an experience of extreme depression, it is the unbridgeable gulf between the narrator’s inner and outer worlds that is brought into focus through the novel’s language.  From the ways in which the words ‘my love’ are weaponised in the relationship between the narrator and her husband, to the fragmentation of sentences, to the suggestion that ‘understanding one another is too violent’, this novel places language at the extremes of what it is possible for communication to do.  Language is both the barrier and the bridge between people and it is frequently shown to be inadequate as either.  The use of first-person, present-tense narration, however, gives the novel an urgency and immediacy that diverges entirely from the experience of the one who is narrating it.  This places the reader into the immediacy of the novel’s present, creating the paradoxical experience of being both immersed within and distant from the narrator’s experience.  It is this paradoxical feature of language – to both include and occlude simultaneously – that makes the narration of this novel so effective.  Always both distant and present, the reader is placed into the position of the narrator through language’s play.


The novel alludes toward Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as a novel about ‘the interconnectivity of human experience’ – an interconnectivity which is accomplished here by the narrative style and perspectives, but which is also the primary experience lacking from the narrator’s life, who is perhaps more akin to Mrs Dalloway‘s Septimus.  Die, My Love does not present neat allegories or trite comparisons, however.  It is the complexity of emotional trauma and its narration through the act of writing that drive this novel.

Increasingly intense and immersive, Die, My Love explores the violence of human relationships that include sex, marriage, motherhood and filial responsibility.  Within these sharp confines, however, there is ample room for the imagination to wander freely, and there are moments of wild magic that provide vivid contrasts and contrapuntal poignancy to the deadening isolation of the narrator’s daily life.  There’s a vital energy that pulses through the pages of Die, My Love, carrying its protagonist onward through each and every pivotal moment to finally become the narrator of her own destiny.

Click here to buy Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff) direct from Charco Press. 

About the Publisher:

Charco Press publishes award-winning short fiction from Latin American writers translated into English for the first time.  Charco Press selects authors whose work feeds the imagination, challenges perspective and sparks debate.  ‘We aim to change the current literary scene and make room for a kind of literature that has been overlooked. We want to be that bridge between a world of talented contemporary writers and yourself. Authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English. Until now.’

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster, where she is also a visiting lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing. Her writing has been published by Adjacent Pineapple, Eyewear, The Projectionist’s Playground and Zarf. The Unfinished Dream, a collaborative chapbook with visual artist Joe Evans, was published by Sad Press in 2016. She is the research assistant for The Contemporary Small Press project, and is on the judging panel for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. @Spaewitch


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:




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 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.


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.