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Review: The Schism, By Robert Dickinson

The strange tale of a man with demons

The novel seems to have become such a female-dominated genre of late that it's almost refreshing to encounter one focusing on male issues: testosterone-fuelled aggression, competition, emotional repression and mental health problems in young men, and differences in male and female interpretations of the world.

Patrick Farrell has a dead-end job collecting fraudulently used credit cards in South London (in the days before the internet made life easier for the banks). His schizophrenic younger brother, Mike, formerly a talented boxer, has been committed, and their parents couldn't care less about either of them.

The only bright spot in Patrick's life is his new girlfriend, Jane. But Jane has some very odd friends, involved in the occult and somehow linked to a fraudster Patrick knows from his work. When Jane's friend Ros offers to do Patrick's horoscope, he gives her the wrong birth details, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to disaster.

At first the occultists seem a comical bunch, missing the pagan festival Samhain altogether because they can't agree how to celebrate it. Torn between traditional female goddess worship and a more male, science-based approach (plus demon-summoning), they are nevertheless planning something special for Candlemas.

The reader begins to suspect developments along the lines of The Wicker Man, yet Patrick is no guileless innocent. Robert Dickinson suggests that his Catholic upbringing has rendered him susceptible to magical thinking. More disturbing is Patrick's reaction to the crude teasing of a colleague: he batters him with a telephone directory. "Tony caught the spine of E-K square in the face."

In a novel about fraud, delusion and concealment, Dickinson diligently lays out clues and false trails. But as most of the characters already interpret phenomena in bizarre ways (one thinks an intruder must have gained entry through a crack in a mirror), it's enjoyably tricky to puzzle out what is actually going on. In the end, The Schism is one of those strange novels that isn't really about what it's about. Don't pick it up if you fancy a racy tale of the occult à la Dan Brown. This is an altogether subtler, and more unnerving affair.