A Hampstead crucifixion

Easter by Michael Arditti (Arcadia, £11.99)
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The Independent Culture

Imagine a glorious medieval triptych, depicting the Easter mystery and crowning the altar of one of Italy's great cathedrals. Then along comes some novelist to breathe new life into the images and transport them to the pages of a contemporary and occasionally explicit novel set in a modern-day Anglican parish in Hampstead. The idea seems, depending on your perspective, either laughable or one which offers enormous potential for artistic and spiritual sacrilege, some appalling sub-Trollopian morass of cardboard cut-outs with moral messages swinging in like Tarzan every few chapters. Against all the odds, Michael Arditti's new novel, with its three sections and cast of thousands mirroring the time-honoured triptych, delivers a technically impressive, emotionally moving and deeply disturbing chronicle of death and resurrection.

This accomplished writer's two previous acclaimed works of fiction, The Celibate and Pagan and Her Parents, majored on themes of religion and homosexuality. Easter once again has them at its core, but is much more ambitious, positioning the dilemma of a gay curate who is diagnosed HIV positive against the backdrop of a religious institution that is riddled with hypocrisy and peopled in pews and pulpit alike by the morally bankrupt. As a portrait of the Church of England in crisis, Easter is a clarion call for reform.

The parishioners of Saint Mary in the Vale, whom we observe gathering to recall Christ's death on the cross, descent into hell and triumphant return three days later, are a troubled bunch: the amoral property developer and his socially ambitious wife, the long-serving stalwart of endless committees who dreams of feathering his retirement nest by pulling a fast one over the derelict clergy house, the Holocaust survivor who finds the comfort of strangers at the altar rail and the lesbian artist who replaces the Stations of the Cross with images of a church suffering from Aids. Leading them are the vicar whose faith is collapsing, the High Church archdeacon whose idea of penance is to be buggered by a rent boy while strapped to a giant crucifix, and the bishop so drunk on his own power and evangelical fervour that he believes everyone can be cured by an ad hoc exorcism.

What saves this demonic crew from becoming a parade of grotesques is the central Christ-like figure of the story, Blair Ashley, the curate of St Mary's. It is he who washes the feet of a tramp in a cemetery that doubles for the Garden of Gethsemane, he who drives the money-lenders out of the Temple when he disrupts the Queen's distribution of Maunday money, and he whose subsequent crucifixion by the press and church authorities sends him on a spiritual journey that culminates in his own rebirth in the faith.

The three-part format and contemporary allegory of Easter are remarkable, but this is above all a fine example of that endangered species, a profoundly and passionately religious novel.