Things We Couldn't Explain, by Betsy Tobin - book review: Wit and warmth in a tale of a miracle in the Midwest

Things We Couldn’t Explain is about first love, miracles, and the moral choices people make in the face of the inexplicable

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The Independent Culture

Betsy Tobin’s timely fifth novel is about a virgin birth – not in Jerusalem but in the small US town of Jericho, Ohio. Despite never having had sex, the beautiful, blind teenager Annemarie discovers she has become pregnant. Her deeply religious family are appalled and accuse her friend and tutor Ethan of betraying their trust. Then the Virgin Mary starts to appear in the sky. Before you can say Christmas, the town is over-run with tourists, zealots, reporters and touts.

As Annemarie says, “truth is a slippery thing”, especially once religion is involved. Ethan sees Annemarie as Rapunzel, home-schooled by her fearsome uncle Joe, and they share a desperate but unconsummated love. He, Annemarie and her mother Eva tell the tale in alternate chapters, developing a portrait of one of those small Midwestern towns, where “the minute you get a bunion the whole town knows about it”. Familiar in fiction from Alice Hoffman and David Lynch, Jericho is, despite appearances, never dull.

Ethan is the first to have visions of the Virgin Mary, but once she appears for all to see every sunset, word of Annemarie’s condition spreads and crowds of Christians gather to hail her as the new Mother of God. Annemarie is highly intelligent and her dignity is hard-won. Her struggles to free herself from her uncle Joe hint at a sinister reason for her pregnancy. Is there a scientific explanation for a virgin pregnancy? Are the red tears running down the cheeks of the plaster Mary during Mass connected? All our heroine wants is to be a normal teenager who enjoys Emily Dickinson and goes out with friends. Instead, she gets kidnapped by a cult.

The difficulties of an unplanned teenage pregnancy are worked through, with both Church and State having different ideas about how to handle it. Unlike the saccharine film Juno, the debate is poignant and the religious neither blamed nor exonerated.

Things We Couldn’t Explain is about first love, miracles, and the moral choices people make in the face of the inexplicable. Annemarie is fearless and Ethan clear-sighted, but Eva, who has turned to the Church for guidance and comfort, asks the right question: do we need religion to lead a moral life? Although the parts to do with the Church could have been trimmed down, the story is both original and unpredictable.

It would spoil things to say how the deliciously filmic plot is resolved. Written with wit, compassion, warmth and a grasp of how imperfect human beings can command our sympathies, this is a serious treat.

Amanda Craig’s sixth novel, ‘Hearts and Minds’, is published by Abacus £8.99