Jubilate, By Michael Arditti

It's a miracle! A condom in Lourdes
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The Independent Culture

Jubilate, pronounced to rhyme with the milky coffee, is as joyful a read as its name suggests.

The title refers to a group of pilgrims, in varying states of health and faith, who visit Lourdes annually to take the waters and worship at the shrine of Saint Bernadette. A tale of illicit passion in extreme circumstances is told with clever chronology, giving the reader plenty to play with. And a love affair is narrated alternately by the two parties involved.

Vincent O'Shaughnessy, a lapsed and sceptical Catholic who retains the inevitable guilt, is directing a documentary marking the 150th anniversary of the Virgin Mary's first apparitions at Lourdes.

Gillian Paterson, meanwhile, is visiting Lourdes as part of the pilgrimage in which her mother-in-law, Patricia, is a veteran participant. She accompanies her husband, Richard, who was brain-damaged 12 years earlier. His severe lack of inhibition causes embarrassment throughout the tour. Gillian's Catholicism is strong yet painfully jaded, or "faint-hearted", in the words of Patricia. Vincent and Gillian's accounts both exhibit a backlog of pain which informs their thinking and decision-making.

Gillian's perspective is a complex one; her loyalties divided between God, her husband, her mother-in-law, her new lover and herself. She is plagued by the notion that she could have made more of her life, and her diminished self-esteem makes it difficult for her to trust the motives of the younger man who shows such interest in her. (Gillian's marriage, before Richard's brain haemorrhage, had been far from perfect.) Their fraught meeting in an airport lounge, surrounded by the fluorescent green sweatshirts which depict the Jubilate angel in full horn-blowing mode, ignites a chemistry that unleashes both physical and emotional revelations.

Amid the tenderness of romance and the religious goings on are some great comedy scenes, including Vincent's frantic quest to locate a condom in Lourdes. Jubilate's secular sermon might be that the true miracle of Lourdes is neither medical nor religious; it is rather that the juxtaposition of people's generosity and resilience on to a background of kitsch seems to hearten, amuse and inspire visitors to face whatever hardship lies ahead.

Michael Arditti has continually proven his versatility with settings as diverse as prisons, seminaries, film-sets and a refugee cruise ship. The extent of his background research is subtly evident in every sentence. His humour ranges from deep-bellied, out-loud fun to the kind of laughter that one can't help expelling at a funeral. The more doom-laden Arditti themes are absent from Jubilate. No one has HIV, abuses children, switches religions or fights an inner battle over their homosexuality. Closing this novel after reading the last page, one briefly believes in miracles, at least of the human redemption kind.

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