I had never heard of Francesca Kay until a review copy of her most recent novel, The Long Room, appeared in my mailbox. It looked intriguing, so I picked it up, made a start, and was completely swept away. You'll be able to read my review of it in Shiny 8, which will be out tomorrow. But then I was greedy for more, and managed to get hold of this one, which was published in 2011. On the surface it's quite a different kind of novel from The Long Room, but both are beautifully written and profoundly thought-provoking.
While Kay's most recent novel takes us almost entirely into the mind and heart of one character, here we have access to the thoughts and feelings of a small number of them, held together as a sort of group by the fact that they are all members of the congregation of the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Church in Battersea. The story begins with Mary Margaret O'Reilly, who devotedly cleans and tidies the church every day. Mary Margaret is described by the parish priest as a 'duine de Dhia' which literally means 'child of God' but which used to be the Irish term for a child with special needs. She's capable of cooking and cleaning and shopping and handling money, but is what used to be described as a bit simple minded. Cleaning one of the chapels just before Easter, she believes she sees real blood issuing from the wounds of the carved crucified Jesus over the altar, and this sets in motion a religious obsession which grows and grows, with ultimately tragic results.
Mary Margaret lives alone in a top floor tower block flat with her mother Fidelma. Abused by nuns as a child, made pregnant as a result of an intensely passionate affair with a boy who is already married, Fidelma has not left the flat for many years, for reasons we only discover towards the end, and has become morbidly obese. We also meet middle-class Stella Morrison, unhappy in her marriage and desperately missing her little son Felix, who has been sent away to boarding school, and Mrs Armitage, anxiously awaiting the return of her son from Afghanistan. Then there's the parish priest, Father Diamond, a good man but one who is struggling with his own faith. Mary Margaret's religious obsession and the way she chooses to act on it will have an impact, of varying degrees of severity, on all of them.
The novel is beautifully, subtly structured, moving seamlessly between the inner lives of the various characters and revealing back stories just at the right time. This is truest of Fidelma, who seems at first a fairly monstrous figure, entirely dependent on the daughter she can't bring herself to show affection to. Over the course of the book we learn more and more about her life -- her great beauty as a young girl, her sufferings at school, her tremendous love for the man who loves her back but cannot marry her, her struggles as a single parent, selling herself to support her illegitimate child, and finally the cause of her inability to leave the flat. Neglected entirely by the social services, she is saved from probable death by Father Diamond, who himself undergoes a kind of transformation as a result.
In many ways this is a desperately sad novel - terrible things happen, and nobody will escape completely unscathed. But for some people -- especially Father Diamond and Fidelma -- there is a glimmer of light at the end, though inevitably tinged with great sorrow. It's a novel about love, and motherhood, and duty, but above all about faith. How is it possible to hold onto this in the face of appalling, inexplicable horrors? One of the great strengths of the novel is the way that Kay avoids two possible pitfalls, neither condemning religious faith nor wholeheartedly endorsing it. It's impossible to know where Kay herself stands on all this, but one thing is certain -- there's huge compassion here for the human condition. Add to that the great beauty of the prose, and you have a remarkable piece of work. I'm off to order Kay's first novel now, so you'll be hearing more about her in the not too distant future.