Parthian, £15 or Order at a discount from The Independent Bookshop
Book review: Awakening, By Stevie Davies
This fine novel of religion and science shuns hindsight
Friday 25 October 2013
Anovel about Nonconformist religion in the middle of the 19th century may not sound like one to pop in the beach bag. But Stevie Davies's twelfth novel is a wholly absorbing exploration of the world of two Baptist sisters in Wiltshire; their complex and shifting relationship, both with each other and the times in which they live.
Get this book at the discounted price of £13.50 from The Independent Bookshop or call 0843 0600 030
Awakening is set in 1860, the year after Darwin's Origin of Species, and centres on Anna and Beatrice, the Pentecost sisters (a surname that could seem too appropriate until we discover in an afterword that it was the name of the author's great aunt) who are survivors of their minister father's first marriage (he would marry again, twice). It is with Papa's third wife, Lore, that Anna is drawn into what is clearly a lesbian relationship ending with Lore's death, before the novel begins. Her solicitous sister struggles to keep the house intact and befitting her father's memory.
Davies has clearly done her homework but there is no trace of the clunky stovepipe-hat-and-zeal properties of the pastiche Victorian novel. Although certain real personages like Philip Gosse, Arthur Munby and the charismatic preacher Charles Spurgeon walk across the stage, there is no attempt to kit them out in cartoon dress. Davies's quiet, delicate, supple prose creates an utterly believable picture of the inner life of the two women.
Anna is initially valetudinarian, wayward, difficult, scandalously drawn to the godless humanist novelist, Miriam Sala, who writes under a male pseudonym and lives in an unmarried relationship. Beatrice is the keeper of her father's pure religious flame but she too has turbulent feelings, condemned to marry Lore's German cousin, Christian Ritter, who has groomed her unctuously since childhood. In reality she is in love with the more appealing Welsh preacher, Will Anwyl. Failing to secure her he marries Anna – who blooms.
Davies weaves this intricate web of faltering, painful relationships with great skill and writes very powerfully and movingly about the subtle half-tones and tentativeness of love, of childbirth, of loss as well as the horribly intrusive shock of male Victorian medical practice towards women.
The wider context of scientific revolution and religious revival – the Awakening of the title – is explored with dry humour rather than outright mockery. The child preachers, spiritualists andfanatics need only the gentlest of prods to provide their own satire; but at the heart of this book is the life of Anna and Beatrice, which Davies has brought to life with unobtrusive mastery.
Nicholas Murray's books include 'A Life of Matthew Arnold'
film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
- 2 Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Ball pool for adults opens in London
- 5 Rashida Jones speaks out against male-centric porn saying 'women should have sex and feel good about it'
Gorillaz Phase 4: Cartoon supergroup is back as new artwork is unveiled
Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
Game of Thrones really doesn't want Danny Dyer - EastEnders star rejected three times
Game of Thrones season 5 trailer: The first full-length look is here
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Stephen Fry explains what he would say if he was 'confronted by God'
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures
Hard line on immigration could cost Tories the election