Our Lady of the Forest. By David Guterson

Bosch on Budweiser
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The Independent Culture

When a young mushroom-picker is struck by visitations of the Virgin Mary within Washington state's sombre rainforest, a trickle of local sceptics becomes a congregation of Woodstock proportions. Ann Holmes, a mousy runaway, knelt in rapture on the forest floor to receive the Blessed Virgin's six-point message, which called followers to renew their faith and strike against greed. Sellers of religious trinkets, revelation groupies, the devout, the halt and the lame all pour into North Fork, creating the best trade since the boom-time lumber concessions. Ann finds herself shepherded through the mounting crowds by her neighbouring mushroomer, Carolyn, who ensures that Ann's message is the first casualty of a slick exercise in management.

Carolyn, a cynic and opportunist, is the only person exerting any control. A natural charlatan, she indulges her flair for vaudeville worthy of a fairground barker. "Hieronymus Bosch on Budweiser" is her acid summary of the devotees.

The dramatic strength of this novel comes from Guterson's expert rendering of his four central characters as vivid, flawed men and women, searching for a way of plugging the gaps in their lives. Carolyn's mouthy, exploitative nature dovetails perfectly with the passivity of Ann. She fled an abusive childhood, took to dope and psilocybin (which gave her hallucinations a religious bent). Ann exudes, in her pared-down otherworldliness, a kind of starvation chic sufficient to ensnare the glances of Fr Collins.

Collins struggles with his own calling in his mildewy church. The near-pornographic apparition of Ann, faint with disease or giddy with spirit, is almost too much. And his parishioner Tom Cross finds himself drawn to Ann in desperate supplication. Sadistic Tom had goaded his effete whelp of a son into logging until an accident, caused largely by Tom's hatred, paralysed the youth. In seeking intercession for his damaged child, Tom seems the unlikeliest of believers, a town pariah.

Guterson plays up the possibility that Ann's rapture is a mushroom flashback, while making her waif-like delivery a faultless piece of theatre. He sidesteps obvious questions of fraudulence by asking, more pointedly: is truth as important as consequence? Similar matters of conscience dominated his tightly plotted début, Snow Falling on Cedars. After an unadventurous follow-up, Our Lady of the Forest marks a welcome return to strong characters whose losses help to define the potency of their yearnings.