Tag Archives: Corvus Books

The Fruit of Knowledge and Revd. Merrily Watkins | Review of “The Wine of Angels” by Phil Rickman (2011) Corvus

We live in a time where traditions, beliefs and even history is being questioned. But how do we better understand the muddle of concepts, ideas and arguments  that are out there which  bombard our minds demanding they be included in our concept of logic? Phil Rickman has given us a starting point through his character of the Revd. Merrily Watkins. And the novel of her introduction, The Wine of Angels, deserves to be mentioned.

Page 19-20

Merrily had a recurring dream. She’d read somewhere that it was a common dream, with obvious symbolism.

By recurring . . . well, she’d fave it maybe once every few months, or the gaps might be even longer nowadays.

There was a period, not long before Sean died, when it came almost nightly. Or even, in that intense and suffocating period, twice or three times the same night – she’d close her eyes and the dream would be waiting there like an empty train by a deserted platform. Sometimes it was merely puzzling, sometimes it seemed to open up exciting possibilities. Occasionally, it was very frightening and she awoke shredded with dread.

What happened . . . she was in a house> Not always the same house, but it was her own house, and she’d lived there quite some time without realizing. Or sometimes she’d just forgotten, she’d gone on living there, possibly for years, without registering that the house had . . . a third floor.

It was clear that she’d lived quite comfortably in this house, which was often bright and pleasant, and that she must have passed the extra staircase thousands of times, either unaware of it or because there was simply no reason to go up there.

In the dream, however, she had to go up. With varying amounts of anticipation or cold dread. Because something up there had made its presence know to her.

She’d nearly always awaken before she made it to the top of the stairs. Either disappointed or trembling with relief. Just occasionally, before her eyes opened, she would glimpse a gloomy, airless landing with a row of grey doors.

In reality, if you excluded flats, she had never lived in a three-storey house.

Now, however . . .

Many of us were introduced to Merrily Watkins in the television adaptation of Midwinter of the Spirit (which is also the second book of the series.) However, reading the books give so much more insight into current social thoughts and mores. Watkins must deal with the pressures of being a female ordained minister in a small town. She tries to deal with the fine line of religion, tradition and superstition while dealing with her own tragic past PLUS raising a teenage daughter. Readers can forgive her for taking the Lord’s name in vain on more than one occasion.

Page 75-76

The evening visit had become a kind of ritual. Her trainers pattered on the flagged floor of the nave. Her footsteps made no echoes; the acoustics, as Alf had said, were warm and tight.

Walking on bones. Several of the flags were memorial stones, dating back three, four centuries. Francis Mott, d. 1713. John Jenkyn, whose dates were worn away into the sandstone like the lower half of the indented skull in the centre of Jenkyn’s flag – they didn’t dress it up in those days.

Couldn’t be more different from the last place, in Liverpool: a warehouse: scuffed, kicked about, a city church of smutted brick, with no graveyard, only rusty railings. The building couldn’t have been less important; it was what you did there, what you brought to it.

This church was important – medieval, Grade One Listed. Beautiful beyond price, even to people with no faith. And it felt friendly. Even to a woman. It enfolded you.

Hey, don’t knock it.

Merrily faced the altar through the rood-screen out of which row upon row of apple shapes were carved. Closed her eyes and saw a deep, dark velvety blue. Feeling at once guilty about this habitual need for reassurance.

‘Mum? That you?’

Merrily’s eyes opened. ‘In here!’

Jane’s head appeared round the door, hair as dark as the oak. ‘You’re not doing anything . . . private?’

‘Like what, for heaven’s sake?’

‘You know . . .’

‘Like doing the rounds? Locking up?’

Merrily stood with hands on hips. Getting a bit fed up with this attitude, the kid treating God like a stepfather. Was it always going to be like this until she left home and old mum in the dog collar became a figure of affectionate amusement?


While there is drama, excitement with this simple plot, Rickman has descriptive details and profound moments in this story. Watkins may be the hero and in a position of authority but she is in now way perfect. She bungles. She waffles. She is indecisive. In short, she is human in an extra-ordinary situation. Just like the rest of us at times.

Page 289-290

She felt completely wrong. She felt overdressed and under-qualified for the white surplice and the clerical scarf and the academic hood from theological college.

She should have been barefoot, in sackcloth. She was here to serve, and she wasn’t up to it. She was going to be a disaster. She looked out at all the pious, formal faces, fronting for the inveterate village gossips who’d always known she wasn’t going to fit in.

She fasted, at least – if unintentionally. A whole day on tea and coffee and cigs. Her head felt like it was somewhere in the rafters. She didn’t much care.

The bishop was ritually explaining a few basics to the congregation, as if they needed to know.

‘The Church of England is part of the One, Holy Catholic Church worshiping the one true God –  Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.’

The word generation making her think at once of her daughter.

Oh, Jane.

The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman has given readers a wonderful means of understanding the complexities of ideals that exists in today’s society. The protagonist, Merrily Watkins, is not a perfect person but is a human struggling through life for her beliefs. This is a great read and profound one to ponder upon afterwards.

Link to Phil Rickman’s website

Atlantic Books page for The Wine of Angels

Imperfect People Seeking Perfection | Review of “Midwinter of the Spirit” by Phil Rickman (1999) Corvus Books

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.

Page 19

‘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.

Page 109

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.

Page 89

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.

Link to Phil Rickman’s website

Link to Corvus Books (U.K.) website for Midwinter of the Spirit