That Which Was by Glenn Patterson

The unconventional Reverend Avery, keeping it real in Belfast
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The Independent Culture


Few writers could take a liberal man of God, put him right in the heart of one the most religiously divided countries in the world, and not resort to histrionics and high drama. That Glenn Patterson not only resists this temptation, but mixes in murder, attempted murder and a little political cover-up as well, while keeping everything humorously yet disturbingly real, is a testament to his powers as a master of the mundane.

Sincerity, truth and depth are hard to convey but Patterson employs them with an ease close that hovers close to, but never touches, glibness. His protagonist is 34-year-old East Belfast Protestant minister, Ken Avery, whose unorthodox approach to scripture ("never been a great one for quoting chunks of the Bible, beyond the obvious, of course, Genesis 1:1, John 3:16") attracts opprobrium from more orthodox members of the community, as well as a confession from another. Confessions, of course, are more likely to be heard at the other place; here, there is no priestly duty of confidentiality. But when one parishioner, Larry, unburdens his past to him, Avery resolves to act alone, keeping Larry's secret even from his wife.

This plunges Avery into the world that he ministers to, but has remained aloof from. There may be paramilitary flags waving from the houses nearby; he may visit in hospital the young victim of a punishment beating; he may even try to coax one mother to let her son play in a football team alongside Catholic boys. But he always holds himself at a remove. In one perfect example of this, he recounts watching an old man one night painstakingly make his way from a top-floor flat down to the bins below with his rubbish. "Twenty minutes it took him to the ground floor and back. Twenty minutes in which Avery was always just a second away from running out to help him."

Avery, it seems, has always been "just a second away"; not any more. Now he is plunged into the darker parts of Northern Ireland's history as Larry tells him he remembers committing murder in the past, and that since then, his brain has been tampered with to keep him from speaking about it. Avery doubts his story at first but is drawn into investigating what happened, partly because of the memory of a childhood sweetheart, Joanna, murdered at the height of the Troubles. In someone else's hands, this could have become a routine political thriller, cliché-ridden and psychologically light. In Patterson's, however, it goes beyond that to become a sensitive, funny, often shocking but always true exploration of memory and faith, and the degrees of belief we invest in each.

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