BOOK REVIEW / More Tio Pepe, vicar, or have we had enough?: 'Absolute Truth' - Susan Howatch: HarperCollins, 15.99 pounds

Share
Related Topics
SUSAN Howatch has recently been through a gradual spiritual awakening, which has taken her well beyond her racy phase, when she produced novels like The Rich are Different and Sins of the Fathers. This change is amply reflected in her Starbridge novels, an examination of the Church of England in the 20th century, culminating in this, the sixth volume, Absolute Truths. There will be no more in the series, Howatch has made clear, despite requests to carry on. As she has observed, the final book brings her protagonists - three Church of England priests, each representing a different strand of thought in the church today - to the point where 'everything is redeemed and completed'.

Howatch deserves praise for her stamina in seeing through this massive project. She has unflaggingly sustained her attempt to tackle the quest for a higher spirituality and psychological awareness in the pacy way that some other writers deal with romance. Her vicars lose faith, or at least find it severely shaken, much as characters in traditional romantic fiction lose love or have it sorely tried. Howatch has remained admirably true to her didactic aim.

But it is precisely this quality that is also Howatch's undoing. Absolute Truths is nothing if not didactic, so much so that it doesn't seem to ever really get going. It's the mid-Seventies and the traditional, upright, urbane Charles Ashworth, now-retired Bishop of Starbridge, is looking back over his turbulent years during the previous decade. As the narrator of the first book in the series, he is fittingly the voice of the last. Yet as Ashworth relives his troubles, most notably the death of Lyle, his second and beloved wife, none of it has much impact. It's as if there is something more to come, but it never does. The problems are not made gripping enough - nor, frankly, are any of the characters. Howatch skims over her story as if she is at the helm of a hovercraft that is hurtling headlong, on schedule, to a very specific port. But when she finally deposits her characters there, and they are told several times during a sermon that 'All things work together for good, for them that love God,' it is hard to believe this is supposed to be a deeply satisfying denouement to six volumes of spiritual inquiry.

None of this is helped by the self-consciousness in the writing. Her vicars get 'hot' under their 'clerical collars'; they repeatedly use phrases that hark back to the titles of her previous books in the series, 'glittering images' to describe how they believe they must portray themselves to the world, while noting that they are taking 'scandalous risks' whenever they stray from the righteous path. 'Absolute truths' becomes the buzz phrase in the final chapters to flag that someone is proffering what invariably amounts to disappointingly undigested Christian doctrine. And do all vicars really go around with their tongues hanging out for a Tio Pepe sherry? (There are so many references to the stuff that I would have thought Howatch deserves advertising royalties.) Moreover, when Loretta, an attractive American academic returns on the scene to reclaim Ashworth, with whom in years past she 'rolled in the hay', we are overtly reminded in virtually every reference to her and every word she utters that this is a bold, brassy Yank compared to conservative, classy Charles.

The idea of theological exploration as a literary theme is an excellent one. But perhaps Howatch should turn her creative hand to depicting her own journey from heretic to heartfelt believer. In doing so, she might have a better shot at achieving spiritual profundity.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron has reiterated his pre-election promise to radically improve the NHS  

How can we save the NHS? Rediscover the stiff upper lip

Jeremy Laurance
 

Thanks to Harriet Harman, Labour is holding its own against the Tory legislative assault

Isabel Hardman
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor