Havoc in its Third Year by Ronan Bennett

A fable for our terrorised times
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The "refrain of the times" is disorder, surveillance, foreigners, paranoia. The law has become a "carnival of retribution". Violence is the norm: infanticide is rife; women are punished as delinquents. The new elite, involved in murderous power-struggles, milks the credulous, cracks down on the hungry and landless, discerns a traitor in the mildest dissident. Establishment terrorism manufactures and feeds off fear of terrorism.

The New World Order in Ronan Bennett's searingly powerful dystopian novel is not the Bush-Blair millennium (or is it?) but an imagined Calvinist experiment in building the New Jerusalem on the black barrens of northern England in the early 1630s. Cloud lours over the moor, a monochrome landscape of foreboding, somewhere between Calvin's Geneva, Paisley's Belfast, Puritan New England and the Apocalypse. At the novel's centre is the scene of a caged man hanged in chains, told with biblically ferocious power. Crows have consumed the highwayman's flesh and a crowd is junketing around the putrid remains. This feast of carnage and carnality recalls the crucifixion and the thieves who died either side of Christ. The "black figure huddled motionless beneath the iron cage" is a pauper mater dolorosa.

Bennett takes no account of the libertarian and humanitarian impulses of Puritanism. The governors' espousal of repressive Calvinism is closer to Scots and Irish Presbyterianism than the complexities of English dissent: the Brownists, Independents, Fifth Monarchists and Baptists. This tale of theocracy and fundamentalism is a fable and parable for all times - and ours in particular. Frances Hill, in her book Such Men Are Dangerous, has drawn arresting parallels between the witchhunting pathology of Calvinism and of US neo- conservative politicians. Bennett's novel subtly goads us to make kindred comparisons.

His slant on the 17th-century thriller (by contrast with Maria McCann's As Meat Loves Salt, say, or Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost) is anomalous in an interesting way. Brigge, the coroner, who attempts to do justice during this depravity, is a Roman Catholic. A closet recusant, he is tempered and radicalised by his experience of the war against humanity unleashed by the elite. Ultimately he joins a barefoot pilgrimage led by a renegade Catholic, Katherine Shay, combining with vagrants and Levellers.

The fantasy aspects of the novel are more than compensated for, though, by the fable's imaginative and moral force. Brigge, conflicted, sensual and taciturn, is a striking creation. On the aesthetic level, he enacts the novelist's duty of forensic exhumation, anatomising the body politic. Bennett's telling is dramatic, tightly plotted, sensual and moving. He avoids the linguistic system of the 17th century, whereby one must say "you" to a superior and "thou" to an inferior, an intimate and - by a rather beautiful exception - to God. To offset this, Bennett incorporates diction that flavours and defamiliarises. When authors ventriloquise the past, they must forge a language.

Women - as in Salem - stand at the centre. They are accused, beaten, murdered, raped. "Women with life in their wombs walk with death itself," thinks Brigge and, in a tender gesture, he removes the talismanic eaglestones from his wife's neck, worn by his mother during his birth.

The novel places its trust in the subversive vestiges of matriarchy that endure in private space. Women hold together the precarious world of familial bonds in the face of all that man and nature can do to tear society apart. How much better, the coroner hypothesises, would be a commonwealth of women than politicians' havoc. In this sublimely written parable, divine love is displaced on to the mercy of women.

Stevie Davies's new novel, 'Kith & Kin', is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson