The Breath of Night, By Michael Arditti. Arcadia, £11.99


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The Independent Culture

Matters of extreme religious or political belief rarely trouble modern British novelists, whose default setting is agnostic/liberal. The nagging question behind most criticism of Graham Greene is "Surely he didn't believe in sin? In God? In Hell?" A similar worry may affect readers of Michael Arditti's latest novel. Greene would have appreciated the setting in the steamy Philippines, a country corrupted by an unholy alliance of church and state, and the cast of apostate priests, brutal police, and a young protagonist thrown into a world almost beyond his moral comprehension.

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Philip Seward is 21 when he meets Julia Tremayne at Cambridge, but they are only together for four years when Julia is killed in a road crash. Philip drifts until Julia's mother, Isabel, approaches him with an extraordinary request. To offset their Catholic family's profits from the Philippines, her uncle Julian had worked as a priest among the poor in the islands until his murder by Marxist guerrillas. A cult has sprung up around reports of miracles; Isabel wants to gather evidence to have Julian declared a saint.

Philip reads the letters written home by Julian; of his love for ordinary Filipinos, his disgust at the rich, and growing political radicalism. In Manila, he is met by the family's agent, camp and ageing Max. A thuggish young man, Dennis, is appointed Philip's driver and minder for his quest. The world described by Julian still exists: the rich still live on fortified estates, the poor scratch a living. It becomes clear that those in power regarded Julian as a traitor to his class. His work among the poor and contacts with guerrillas had led to his arrest and imprisonment.

Is he a saint? Here the agnostic mind could gag at Julian's miraculous powers, but the book offers a wonderful study of a near-medieval world, where the good are beset by monsters (a scaly Imelda Marcos makes an appearance). The enervating heat, cock fights, giant rubbish dumps on which thousands of scavengers exist: through all of this Philip moves, until at last the truth of the holy life and strange death of Julian is revealed.