The Enemy of the Good, By Michael Arditti

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In a scene towards the end of this novel, the painter Clement Granville is reading Trollope's The Warden. So absorbed is his in this account of ecclesiastical and political skulduggery that he forgets his partner Mike and mother Marta are coming to visit him. Arditti, like Trollope, writes fiction filled with wit and acute social observation, all placed in a religious setting.

But there the similarities end. The Enemy of the Good is a tale of faith in the 21st century, where belief in a God is viewed by many at best as a peculiar eccentricity and at worst downright dangerous. It's a time of fluid theology, convictions held loosely by some and by others for whom the label "fundamentalist" seems the only one suitable.

The novel begins with an almost Trollopian character. Edwin Granville is an Anglican bishop who has lost his faith but hangs on to the structures and liturgy of the church. His wife, Marta, is a Holocaust survivor who has rejected her Jewish faith and gazes at religion with the eye of an anthropologist. Their painter son Clement has strong Christian beliefs. They are liberal enough to have space for his own homosexuality, and for abortion and euthanasia as compassionate ethical choices that a merciful God would accept.

Clement works on three depictions of a suffering Christ, and while Arditti's subject here is faith, he has also produced an account of trials, both literal and metaphorical. There is the trial of Rafik, Clement's refugee model; his lover Mike faces accusations of wrongdoing at his school and Clement is tried for murder. There are other moments of spiritual endurance: Edwin's descent into mental chaos; sister Susannah's conversion to strict Hasidic Jewry.

Arditti's portayal of deep faith is so skilfully composed that he evokes empathy for a woman like Susannah, who yearns so much for meaning and stability that she rejects her liberal world for Orthodox Judaism, with all its restrictions on women. He also deftly highlights the absurdities of rigid belief without any trace of a sneer. Yet there are times when The Enemy of the Good does stretch the reader's credulity. As a sweeping family saga whose plot manages to incorporate gay characters, domestic violence, the Holocaust, single mothers, stepchildren, bullying, prison, HIV and even dodgy imams, it does sometimes feel as if it is the creation of a scriptwriters' conference rather than an adept novelist.

Arditti is to be applauded for tackling a subject that is so often ignored. A large proportion of Britons do hold religious beliefs, and fiction mostly ignores that. Arditti has identified that in our multi-cultural society, faith is not only private but increasingly political, shaping culture and making life all the more complex for it. As he shows, the search for redemption and meaning is at the heart of belief – and in that sense, it's rather like fiction.

Catherine Pepinster is editor of 'The Tablet', the Catholic weekly

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