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

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Critics of Fiona Woolf say she should step down amid accusations of an establishment cover-up  

Fiona Woolf resignation: As soon as she became the story, she had to leave

James Ashton
 

Letters: Electorate should be given choice on drugs policy

Independent Voices
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes