A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Since this is my final review of 2013, and I’ve spent most of the year reviewing children’s books, I’m taking this opportunity to talk about an adult novel. It’s a potentially awkward book to review, because the author Jenn Ashworth used to be a Bookfox back in the very early days of this site. There’s also the fact that when I read the first chapter – narrated by a teenage girl called Jeannie – I was a little put off by the voice, which seemingly documented every single thought to enter Jeannie’s head, and I set the book aside for a few weeks. Added to that, the book’s subject is a Mormon family, and one of my guilty pleasures used to be watching American TV drama Big Love, which I found completely engrossing and addictive. For anyone who hasn’t heard of Big Love, it featured, yes, a Mormon family, but one based in Utah and one that adhered to “the Principle” – the Principle being plural marriage or polygamy. Since this TV show constituted my main exposure to Mormonism, I was worried that some of my Big Love fandom might affect my reading of Ashworth’s book. So I’ve spent a few months pondering all of this and wondering how to approach a review.
As it happens, once I got past the first chapter in which Jeannie’s obsessive thinking grated on my ears, I raced through the pages of this novel, (which is nothing like Big Love, by the way) and found it incredibly funny, moving and profound. In fact, in the days after reading the novel I found myself thinking about it often and marveling at its depth and cleverness, which shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, since I know its author to be both deep and clever, but still, I didn’t expect to be so affected by this storytelling.
But let’s start at the beginning. Here is the blurb:
It’s Friday in the Leeke household, but this is no ordinary Friday: the Leekes are Lancastrian Mormons and tonight they will be welcoming back their son Gary from his two-year mission in Utah. His mother, Pauline, wants his homecoming to be perfect. Unfortunately, no one else seems to be following the script.
In turn, the members of the family let us into their private thoughts and plans. There’s teenage Jeannie, wrestling with a disastrous secret; her peculiar elder brother, Julian, who’s plotting an exit according to his own warped logic; their father, Martin, dreaming of escape; and ‘golden boy’ Gary, who dreads his return. Then there’s Pauline, who needs a doctor’s help but won’t ask for it.
As the day progresses, a meltdown looms. Except that nothing goes according to anyone’s plan, and the outcome is as unexpected as it is shocking. Laced with black humour and giving an unusual insight into the Mormon way of life, this is a superbly orchestrated and arresting tale of human folly and foibles and what counts in times of crisis.
The line, “Then there’s Pauline, who needs a doctor’s help but won’t ask for it” is the line that now jumps out at me. It’s a sentence that sounds rather bleak, and yet Pauline’s story is the most farcical and funny of them all, which is some achievement given that the nature of her ailment is post-childbirth rectal trauma. The birth in question occurred fourteen years before the start of the novel, so this terrible condition is something that Pauline has been struggling with for a long time, and it’s made her a bit, well, doolally, which is fair enough really, given the circumstances. So although Pauline’s story is riotously funny in places, I also found it really refreshing to see this kind of childbirth complication talked about in a novel. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this subject featured in any other novel, which is odd since this kind of injury affects so many women. Pauline is embarrassed by her messy condition and suffers in silence for years rather than see a doctor and ask for help, and this embarrassment wrecks her life. She can never be more than a few metres from a toilet, she lives in fear of soiling herself and to her family it is as if Pauline’s incontinence has taken over the entire house. Of all the stories in The Friday Gospels, Pauline’s was my favourite because it was so rich in human pride, embarrassment and error, and it also made me wonder about the relationship between body and spirit – the study of which is a classic philosophical and religious pursuit, now I come to think of it.
Which leads me on nicely to the treatment of religion in The Friday Gospels. Mormonism is neither ridiculed, nor glorified here, but there is a fondness and a sort of gentle teasing in the writing that I liked – it reminded me of a person reminiscing about their mostly harmless but completely eccentric uncle. This struck me as the right tone for a darkly comic novel about a Mormon family and I was glad there were no low blows or sledgehammers taken to Mormonism (and perhaps this is a sign of my Big Love fandom creeping into my judgement, but there we are).
Something else that I really appreciated about the novel was the structure, which as you’ll note from the blurb, sees the story told through the viewpoints of the five different family members over a single day. This is a tricky move to pull off, because there is always the worry that readers will prefer certain characters over others, and want to skip the voices they like less. This is to some extent unavoidable, and often authors will admit in private to favouring certain characters over others and even resenting hours spent writing from the POV of less interesting/appealing characters. It’s all a matter of taste and personal preference, I suppose. So I was pleased to find that – excepting Jeannie’s first chapter – I was gripped by all the characters in this novel, even (or perhaps especially) the ones I found creepy or loathsome.
So, I admired the structure, the characterisation, the clever plotting, and I relished the risk-taking, as this is a novel that could have gone horribly wrong in other hands. Maintaining tension in a book woven together in this piecemeal fashion is no easy task and yet I can’t now imagine this story told in any other way.
However, the thing I enjoyed most of all was the book’s interest in failure. Readers are fed a lot of stories about victory and eventual winners, but Ashworth writes completely convincingly about the people who aren’t winners, for whom there is no wonderful bright light at the end of the tunnel – they might discover a dim grey patch at best – and this is seen most of all in the story of Gary, the favourite son who has been to Utah on a mission to bring new members into the Mormon church and in two years has succeeded in converting exactly no one. Gary’s deep shame, frustration and desperation is depicted so vividly that I couldn’t help empathising with him and willing him to succeed even though I sensed he wouldn’t, because unfortunately for Gary the ability to make convincing verbal arguments on the spur of the moment is simply beyond his abilities due to a terrible stammer, and he has to find a way to deal with failure – as do all of us at some point in our lives (and how’s that for a cheery Wednesday thought?).
I would like to write about the other characters at length, such as the deeply unnerving Julian, who is mentally fixated on a child with disabilities, or the grotesquely pervy husband Martin who has his sights set on an attractive dog-walker acquaintance, or even Jeannie whose unpredictable moodiness is caused by something far more sinister than the usual teenage hormones, but I’m running out of time and space, so I’ll just say this: if you get the chance, read The Friday Gospels, savour every chapter, every laugh, and steel yourself for a dramatic and unnerving finale.
The Friday Gospels, Sceptre, 336 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1444707724.
For the Guardian’s review of The Friday Gospels, please click here.