In the early part of January, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired to its viewers a British miniseries. It dealt with the usual issues of: single-parenthood, religion, values in our age, and so forth. But the story line had the unique character of a imperfect person trying to create understanding of the world that she may not have the tools to deal with. Merrily Watkins is a unique character in that she is fumbling through something that she is unable to deal with – like so much of us feel on a day-to-day basis. Noting that, I pick a copy of the book that the show was based on. And found myself impressed with Phil Rickman’s Midwinter of the Spirit.
‘So,’ Huw Owen said now, mock-pathetic, slumped under the rising moon. ‘Would you come over all feminist on me if I begged you not to do it?’
Merrily said nothing. She’d been expecting this, but that didn’t mean she knew how to handle it. Quite a shock being offered the job, obviously. She’d still known very little about Deliverance ministry. But did the Bishop himself know much more? Huw appeared to think not.
This is the second book in a series of novels that have Merrily Watkins as a protagonist. She is an Anglican priest and a single mom who has been hired by the church to be the Diocesan Exorcist. But, even with the name change of Deliverance Consultant now, the job raises suspicion and questioning by many, including Watkins’ teenage daughter. But this isn’t a story of ghouls and ‘things-that-go-bump-in-the-night’ story that we might expect from when we hear the word ‘exorcist.’ Rickman has documented many elements of the zeitgeists’ questioning of the role of religions and beliefs in this book, giving the novel a simple yet intelligent feel.
Merrily’s mouth was dry.
‘This is a dying man,’ Sandra said. ‘And he knows it and she knows it, and she’s still terrified of him. In his younger days, see, he thought he was God’s gift. A woman who knows the family , she told me about all the women and girls he’d had, and the way he abused them but they kept coming back. He charmed them back, he did. Not by his looks, not by his manners, he just charmed them. And then he got older and he got sick and he got married, and he controls the wife by fear. And he’s lying there delighting in Tessa seeing the poor little woman giving him an eyeful of what he owns. If that’s not evil then I don’t know what evil is.’
What is evil? Huw Owen had said. It’s the question you’re never going to answer. But when you’re in the same room with it, you’ll never know.
Merrily said, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know what I can do.’
‘Protection. She wants protection.’
The door had opened. sister Cullen was standing there, the darkness behind her.
‘She’s right, he’s a bad man with a black charm. But he’s just a man, and that’s where it ends as far as I’m concerned. I’m from Derry, so I’ve seen what religion does to people, and I want none of it. But this is one patient where I’m more concerned about his nurses.
Rickman has a great writing style. He has great descriptions that build an imagine in the mind’s eye with great ease. Then he adds small phrases that jolts a reader into another image of realization. The process is repeated a few times in the book, giving the novel a great flow.
In the late afternoon the wind had died, leaving the sky lumpy and congealed like a cold, fried breakfast. Beneath it the historic village of Ledwardine looked sapped and brittle, the black and white buildings lifeless, as indeed several now were. Nothing remained, for instance, of Cassidy’s Country Kitchen except a sign and some peeling apple-transfers on the dark glass; and five For Sale signs had sprouted between Church Street and Old Barn Lane.
The village looked like it needed care and love and a shot of something – an injection of spirit. Of God, perhaps? Introduced by a conscientious, caring priest without selfish ambition she wasn’t equipped to fulfil?
I was glad I was introduced to Midwinter of the Spirit by Phil Rickman via the television series. The book was an engrossing read and I have no doubt that I will be reading more of Rickman’s works in the future.