Reviewed by Francis Etheredge
In many ways, although this is only the second novel I have read of this author, it reads as a climax of many threads that, one imagines, have been gathering momentum through Christine Sunderland’s seventy years of life which, with the twists and turns of an exciting write, she has turned into a spiritual thriller, racing through the tensions of our times and, at the same time, pausing in front of the mystery of God and prayer: that striking contrast between upheaval and turmoil and the still point of being still: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46: 10).
We enter a world rightly worried about the need to remember war, its abuses, the escalation of conflict, the unholy influence of drugs and money, terrorism and its dehumanizing isolation and destructiveness, the experience of refugees, and the many ways that we come to the solid foundations of our lives and of the societies in which we live in discerning the ethical use of reason, science, the great and majestic sweep of culture, civilization and religion. This contemporary scene is embraced, as it were, within the structure of time echoing God’s work of creation and, as the novel develops, so the almost contradictory song of praise rises from one of Sunderland’s most dramatic characters.
We enter this world, then, through a variety of voices who range from the almost deranged terrorist to the prophetic voice of a modern day John the Baptist and a whole range of characters in between, either thinking through their relationship to the Christian Faith or deeply immersed in or connected to it; and, in the course of what unfolds, there is the almost anonymous “hook up” contrasted with the deeply personal engagement and marriage of two of the central characters. In the midst of a volatile situation, whether externally with forest fires and the unpredictable killings of bystanders or the erupting, “internal dialogues”, within her characters, there “enters” an enclave of friendship in the house of a Jewish widow, Elizabeth, who has befriended her housekeeper and husband and the two people who, in time, will meet and be drawn together through a common love of Elizabeth and her brother, Abram.
Abram, who is a late vocation to the Anglican priesthood, and who preaches repentance and baptism before his death in a beautifully colourful Orthodox context of intense iconography, praise, and a radical Christian life. Sunderland’s portrayal of Abram brings out the dramatic nature of conversion and its call to others, drawing out friendships and opening up relationships, literally, between heaven and earth! While, in one sense, one might have objected to such a prayer saturated book, it is so taken up into the life of Abram that it truly shows the “invisible made visible” and a generous embrace of a variety of different expressions of the heart’s awakening to the existence of God who loves us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One wonders, too, about the author’s ecumenical embrace of different traditions with an almost “interior” unity between them all; and, as such, it is like reading an account with the sense of Ut Unum Sint, That They May All Be One, by St. John Paul II – but without the explicit mention of the pope.
Sunderland touches, too, on the challenge of harnessing the good of genetic science and repudiating its harmful, historical antecedents which, ominously, touch the present; and, it is good to see a brief but intermittent exchange about the credibility of evolutionary theory. Indeed, the need for explicitly critical thinking is evident as one character speaks of the ‘Cambrian explosion, a fossil record with no found links to earlier fossils, a species that simply appeared.’ In other words, within the scale and dynamic of the whole book, it is clear that the ’chance’ (cf. Proverbs, 2: 2) appearance of human life is as foreign to human existence as the passage between atheism to religious belief is intelligent.
In view, then, of our present times, full of the reality and ongoing tension of war, it is definitely consoling to discover an author who sees, simply, the whole: the detail amidst the grand sweep of history – both challenging us to the good use of our freedom and intelligence and encouraging us, in the context of time from time immemorial, to believe in repentance and prayer for the good of all.
Yes; there are echoes of C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength – but a wonderfully exciting drama told wholly on her own terms! Christine Sunderland is both a woman with roots in the living waters (Psalm 1: 3) and a scribe who brings out both the old and the new and shows their harmony in the hands of God (cf. Matthew, 13: 52)!