Arcadia Books £11.99

Review: The Breath of Night, By Michael Arditti

Murder, mystery and Marcos all feature as Michael Arditti's gumshoe confronts dilemmas of faith, corruption, oh, and Imelda's footwear

It is a peculiarity of human nature to latch on to a disconcerting detail as an emblem of a greater tragedy. In the case of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, it is not the atrocities of martial law or the bludgeoning of the poor by the ruling elite that we remember first, but rather Imelda's shoes. In a "let them eat cake" way, it was her bulging closet that perfectly captured the shocking inequality inherent in the period and the inevitability of revolt.

In Michael Arditti's novel, The Breath of Night, that infamous footwear gets a walk-on part (more of which later) but so too does a legion of other raw juxtapositions where silver and slum live cheek by jowl. Arditti has set out to explore the complexities of religious faith, in particular Catholicism, in this morally compromised environment through the dramatic prism of a mystery. His hapless detective is Philip Seward, a failed art expert and jobbing cultural critic in present-day London. Several years after his fiancée, Julia, is killed in a car crash, Philip is called to her family seat, Whitlock Hall. At this grand Durham pile, he is presented with an unusual commission by her parents, Isabel and Hugh Olliphant.

In the 1970s, Julia's great-uncle, Julian Tremayne, had settled in the Philippines as a Catholic priest tending to a rural community under the Marcos cosh. It was a calling that culminated with his murder at the hands of Communist insurgents. Now Julian is the subject of a positio, the investigation into the validity of his canonisation. Which is where Philip comes in: the Olliphants want a man on the ground to see how Rome is getting on.

Philip's mission is precarious. Landing in Manila, he is first hit by the pulverising heat and then the bureaucracy of Church and State. He also has to fend off the clammy innuendo of Max Bradshaw, the Olliphants' ageing business associate. Max is one of a number of dubious scoundrels that Arditti expertly details: he's a camp Margot Fontayne obsessive wrapped up in a crumpled no-longer-white suit. Max foists the services of Dennis (part time go-go dancer, full-time chancer) on Philip as driver, bodyguard and palm-greaser.

It is a portentous foundation for a search for a saint but then, as Philip interviews Julian's parishioners and fellow priests, a picture emerges of a man in the throes of a crisis of faith, a portrait which sharpens through our reading of Julian's letters from the time. As the dictatorship became increasingly abhorrent, we find evidence of Julian's struggle with the constraints of peaceful protest. "I'm convinced that far from being incompatible with a priest's role, political engagement stands at its heart," writes Julian to his brother. Three decades later, Philip discovers that what followed the downfall of the administration was also deplorable.

Arditti's effective structural scaffolding, with its subjective viewpoints in each time-frame, creates a dark jigsaw piecing together a study of what it means to possess a profound religious belief in a corrupt world. And as an addendum to that question is another: what are the consequences of the Church's complicity in that corruption for its flock. The literary touchstones here are the works of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, with the former's seamy supporting characters and the latter's take on the English floundering overseas riffing through Arditti's story. In prose style, he leans more to Greene. The opening line ("I first heard of Julian Tremayne during my all-too-brief-engagement to his great niece.") echoes that of Greene's final novel Doctor Fischer of Geneva ("I think I used to detest Doctor Fischer more than any other man I have known just as I loved his daughter more than any other woman.").

There emerges a distinction between Church and faith akin to that between stage and talent. Yet there are no cheap shots at the Catholic Church, rather a litany of valid questions. The novel broaches a curious irony of contemporary society; that when it is crippled by rage, fear and materialism, when the need of spiritual sustenance is acute, it has become increasingly secular.

The Breath of Night manages deftly to avoid the narrative constraints of polemical fiction through bold characterisation and its harrowing depiction of a specific setting. Julian and Philip bear testament to a country which has passed from Spanish colonialism to US imperialism via the feudal deprivations of the Marcos years. As a result, the trajectory of the Honourable Julian Tremayne from Durham priest to potential revolutionary seems a road that is straight and true.

In one of the many moments of coal-black humour on Julian's trail, Philip is confronted with the doddering figure of Imelda Marcos at a society party. His eyes, of course, eventually drop to her feet. "Her shoes," notes Philip, "were disappointingly plain: open-toed sandals with a plastic flower on each strap." Arditti's inquiring and powerful novel ably undermines the standing of such false idols.

 

 

Arts and Entertainment

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital