Sacred monsters of a church in crisis

Easter by Michael Arditti (Arcadia, £11.99, 390pp)

Michael Arditti has over-egged his pudding. Easter is a hectic and furious book, but so richly written as to be clotted. It is intended as a 21st-century Passion story in which the congregation of a north London church re-live versions of the crucifixion and resurrection. In addition to some dozen anonymous men in various sexual permutations, there are over 50 named characters. The plot unravels through an ambitious and meticulously plotted structure. There is a ghastly excitement as the story unfolds, cuts back on itself and moves towards a climax of death and destruction. A baptism of fire leads to reconciliation and glimpses of Christian love.

The plot is as complex as a novel by Angus Wilson at his most exuberantly Dickensian. A nonagenerian doctor, who has spent his life ministering to the poor, is being evicted from his flat because he cannot meet a Crown Estates rent review. Blair Ashley, curate of the Hampstead parish where the old man worships, consequently berates the Queen at a Maundy Thursday ceremony in Westminster Abbey. As Ashley has just been diagnosed as HIV+ after burying a former doctor lover, the jackals of the gutter press are soon blazoning headlines such as "Aids vicar spits at Queen".

St. Mary-in-the-Vale's adolescent altar boy strips in front of him, and reacts with hysterical venom when his advances are rebuffed. Ashley is arrested while visiting his ex-lover's grave, and at the instigation of the altar boy's father, is accused of performing satanic rituals. He is browbeaten by the fundamentalist bishop of London, who declares of homosexuality "the victims are infected by demons which enter through the anus". The bishop's wife comes out as a lesbian, a Jewish family celebrate Passover, a thug force-feeds a porn star like a goose until she dies and, on Good Friday, a rent-boy crucifies a repressed archdeacon.

Parts of this novel are resonant, wise and admirable. The long internal soliloquy by a librarian who is HIV+ is powerful, elegant and compelling. Arditti's depiction of HIV status as equivalent to the reality of the Cross is convincing. The Christianity of the vicar is well portrayed. "Fundamentalism isn't faith, it's despair", he says, "as much of a cry for help as a suicide's. It's a flight from life, a denial of that human freedom which is the most precious gift of God. Fundamentalists leave their brains outside their churches the way that Moslems leave their shoes".

But Easter has flaws, too. It is uneven in its humour and temper. There are successful comic moments - the Queen travelling to Westminster Abbey and being distracted by Prince Philip's toneless rendition of "If I were a rich man" - but many dud jokes. The dialogue is often askew - witness the dosser who talks with the magniloquence of Henry James. The property developers, obtuse bishop and mad archdeacon are exaggerated characters. There are over-written and unconvincing scenes: the disruption of a baptism and vandalism of church decorations by a crooked businessman is one example. Even more far-fetched is the brutal dialogue between Ashley and the HIV specialist who diagnoses him. The sex scenes are portentous, and scarcely credible even when limited to loveless couplings.

But Arditti's theme is redemptive love, which he portrays in a cruising scene intended to represent both Heaven and Hell. A man employed as an "organ repairer" gives Ashley a blow job on Hampstead Heath. "Whereas the loneliness of masturbation leaves me lost in the face of infinity, his mouth connects me to the molten centres of the earth. I feel warm and replete and grateful and sticky and vulnerable and safe. After a few moments he raises his head and spits out my semen so lightly that I have no sense of rejection." It is a pity that there are moments of tosh in this clever but over-excited novel.