BOOK REVIEW / Misfits in a tyranny of goodness: 'The Grisly Wife' - Rodney Hall: Faber, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
CATHERINE Byrne is a headstrong, idealistic teenager when she marries Mr Moloch, a prophet 'famous for being able to recognise Satan everywhere'. Attracted by his handsome ugliness, his revolutionary preaching and his never-to-be-repeated miracle - she has seen him levitate - Catherine escapes from her conventional English home and her bullying clergyman father to a tyranny of goodness.

The prophet, an illiterate cobbler who renames himself Muley Moloch so that he may 'bear the sins of the infamous Irish apostate', is a cruel but charismatic figure, a weedy Elmer Gantry. His followers are all single women who have never been comfortable in English society, misfits eager to leave the hypocrisy of the old world for a New Jerusalem in colonial Australia. But the 'Hidden Stars', as Moloch names his disciples, are disappointed to discover the corruption and pretensions of an English city at the 'ends of the earth'. So they move deeper into the wilderness, deeper into the exquisite torture of a faith which relies on the imminence of the Last Judgment ('What is precious is only precious because it can be lost - and will be lost]'), deeper into self-torment, sickness and death. With the prophet's blessing they abuse each other verbally and physically because, they reason, if anything goes wrong, someone must be to blame: 'There always has to be an inner cause for every outward manifestation - or what would be the point of our faith?'

But the prophet's oppressive power diminishes when Catherine discovers that she too can perform miracles. Her pregnancy must be immaculate, for her husband has never touched her. Even after Moloch confesses that he slept with her when she was ill with consumption, she does not lose her faith. For she has always believed in the miracle of the imagination: memories and fantasies are as vivid to her as the present reality. What drew her to Moloch was not his ability to rise from the floor but the conjuring power of his words.

If the writing seems disjointed at times it is because we read the past entirely through Catherine's memories. We have the uneasy feeling that she is not always a reliable witness, that what she holds back may be as important as what she admits. She is wary of her interrogator, a police sergeant who could not possibly understand her eccentric life, and who, she mistakenly believes, is investigating the murder Moloch committed years ago.

Because of this staccato narrative and the startling scenes - the fantasy battle the missionaries hear above the still waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Catherine's night in the Australian forest, her visit to the slaughterhouse - the novel seems at first a bewildering collection of visions and mysteries. The images are almost too strange to be understood: 'Like the riddle of a prophecy - the meaning must be felt because it cannot be described.' But we begin to see why Moloch calls Catherine the 'grisly wife'. She and the other women emerge as the real power in the mission. Moloch, an impressionable man who borrows his wife's ideas, who once preached that 'women are always the first to heed the word of the Lord', becomes their figurehead. Like all prophets, he cannot prevent his words being twisted and transformed by his disciples.

Though filled with purple passages, the novel never seems overwritten. Hall's prose is passionate and very beautiful, and the story is interesting and unusual almost to the point of improbability. The demons who haunt these refugees from the 'smut and futility of England' become as real to us as our own nightmares.