Good to a Fault, By Marina Endicott

Tale of woe soon makes an impact

It is notoriously difficult to write fiction about seriously good people; not innocents or victims – those are relatively easy – but characters who actively strive to be virtuous. One of the reasons the virtuous have often scorned or spurned the reading of novels is that it is so much easier to write about the bad – be they seducers or the corrupted – and certainly much easier to spin entertainment from such material.

Vicars and their congregants routinely appear in either comic or sinister guise. Jane Austen would be horrified at how a nation of readers that continues to revere her morally severe works has come to expect practising Christians to be portrayed as hypocrites or monsters. Virtue doesn't sell.

The Canadian writer Marina Endicott's second novel, Good to a Fault, won a Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and one can see why. It's just as funny and absorbing as her debut, Open Arms. But it takes the risk of placing two virtuous characters at its heart, and taking goodness and its complications as its theme.

The opening is perhaps the fastest thing about it. Clara Purdy is so busy fretting about "herself and the state of her soul" one hot July day that she drives straight into a crowded car as it speeds into a junction. When she insists on accompanying the obviously badly off family to the hospital, the woman turns out to be seriously ill, quite possibly dying, from some form of lymphoma. Learning that the family was more or less reduced to living in the car she has just wrecked, she impulsively does the Christian thing and takes them into her immaculate, childless home.

What ensues is a pleasingly spiky exploration of the limits of forgiveness and tolerance. It is a love story in the particular sense – involving a married priest with domestic and spiritual challenges of his own – and in the general one, involving the bruising extension of Clara's heart to include the children that she guiltily yearns to adopt, and their resolutely unlovable grandmother.

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