Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Phil Rickman, Merrily Watkins & The Cure of Souls

Phil Rickman by candlelight, taken from Phil the Shelf Q & A

Cure of Souls is the fourth novel in Phil Rickman’s supernatural thrillers concerning Merrily Watkins -- Anglican priest, Vicar of Ledwardine, and newly appointed Minister of Deliverance (formerly: exorcist) for the diocese of Herefordshire.

A mystery series about a woman priest!

When my book-business partner Debbie told me she was reading a supernatural mystery series about a female Anglican priest, warning bells went off. Debfriend was high on the books, but I was reluctant to take her up on her offer to share. Would the controversy over women priests dominate the writer’s point of view? Would I find subtle or not so subtle digs at my beloved Catholic Church, which maintains an all-male priesthood?

Happily, this was not the case. True, one thread of plot throughout the series concerns the Anglican church’s response, as a social body, to the institutional novelty of female clergy. Tradition runs high in the rural villages of England in which the novels are set. How will these folks respond to a female vicar?

But that thread of plot does not dominate, nor does the author beat us over the head with the Rightness of women priests.

Still and all, the books disturb me and I’m not sure why. Anne Rice’s vampire stories had a similar effect on me. What the two series have in common is the creation of vital characters going through credible dilemmas in atmospheres permeated with unhappiness, discouragement and even despair.

Cure of Souls finds Merrily called in to examine 16-year-old Amy Shelbone, a formerly devout schoolgirl who has undergone a profound personality change. Her pious parents are alarmed by Amy’s increasing reluctance to attend church and her seemingly preternatural knowledge of unknown facts. They call for aid from the diocese’s deliverance ministry after Amy becomes violently and publicly ill during a communion service. Merrily visits Amy at her parents’ request, but Amy refuses to see her and wildly denounces God, religion, and all vestiges of religious belief.

Meanwhile, Merrily’s 17-year old daughter Jane is taking summer vacation with her boyfriend Eirion and his well-to-do family in their home in Wales. Eirion has indicated he would like to take their relationship “to the next level”, and Jane is anxious to prove to the ostensibly experienced Eirion that she is ready to become a “full-fledged woman.” As Jane discovers that what Eirion’s parents had in mind with their invitation was an unpaid au pair to take care of his step-siblings, she realizes that her participation in a clandestine Ouija board session at school may have had more impact on classmate Amy Shelbone than she had imagined.

In a separate plot thread, series regular Lol Robinson takes temporary lodgings in nearby Frome Valley, in a small cottage that is being converted into a recording studio by producer/engineer Prof Levin. Levin hopes Lol will find inspiration there to rekindle his stalled career as a singer/songwriter.

On the deserted hop fields near the banks of the Frome River, Lol encounters a ghost-like lady who is naked except for the long, dry, twining hop-bines that rustle as she walks. Is she real or an apparition? Lol takes the question to Al and Sally Boswell, a couple who act as curators of the Hop Museum and possess intimate knowledge of local history. Al gives Lol a beautifully handcrafted Boswell guitar, while Sally tells him the legend of the Lady of the Bines, who is said to haunt the hop fields that once provided the economic bounty of the Valley.

Raw from her failure to get through to Amy in any manner, Merrily is called to the Frome Valley to perform a spiritual cleansing of a hop-kiln owned by obnoxious, publicity-seeking Gerard Stock and his odd wife Stephanie. Lol and Merrily meet again as Lol attends the cleansing ritual to protect Merrily’s reputation -- the newspapers have gotten wind of it and plan to do a nasty piece about the absurdity of exorcism in this day and age.

The cleansing goes awry, and the resulting tragedy elevates the event to a crisis that not only calls into question the deliverance ministry but threatens Merrily’s very right to continue as a priest in the Church of England.

As always, Rickman has thoroughly researched his topics. In Cure of Souls these include Romany (or gypsy) lifestyle; the cultivation of hops in rural England; deliverance ministry in the Church of England; and the tension between developers and preservationists in old English villages and lands. Chapters have intriguing titles like “Full of Dead People”, “God and Music”, “Drukerimaskri”, and “Avoiding the Second Death”. As with previous Merrily Watkins novels, the book is a page-turner.

So what’s the problem? I am not sure. As with Anne Rice, I feel uneasy after reading this exploration of the natural and the supernatural. Merrily herself doesn't so much solve murders as stir up the forces that bring hidden sins into the light. She is an appealing heroine – full of faith although mostly lacking in consolations; dedicated to her ministry, but always one step away from losing it to forces both natural and un-.

The best I can say is that I know I will read the next book in the series – but not right away. I need time to recover between immersions into Rickman’s imagined world. I care about these characters. I want to see them victorious over the powers and principalities that make their influence felt with pervading menace rather than dramatic manifestations.

Perhaps, in the end, it is the lack of full sacramental help, of the kind available to Catholic priests (yes I know that's arguable to non-Catholics) that makes Merrily’s adventures in deliverance so scary to me. The natural and supernatural evils portrayed have an authentic ring to them. Merrily and her loyal band of friends seem always on the verge of being swallowed whole by the chaos. The light of Christ gleams through the books, but in muted hues.

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