Novel of the week

Holy Fools

Joanne Harris <em>Doubleday, 431pp, £15</em>

ISBN 0385603649

Few who read Chocolat, Joanne Harris's best-known novel, can be under any illusions about what she thinks of the Catholic Church. A tale of sensuousness versus censoriousness, liberality versus meanness, and chocolate versus the Church, it struck a resounding chord with the reading public. The saccharine film version wimped out of attacking the priesthood, but it was only a matter of time before she returned to the fray.

Harris's seventh novel, Holy Fools, is set in 17th-century France, at a time when the murder of Henry IV and fear of the plague and witchcraft have excited religious frenzy. As in Chocolat, the heroine, Juliette, is a single mother. Following the birth of her daughter, she gives up her career as an actress, rope-dancer and travelling player, and becomes a nun on the remote island abbey of Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer. Here, she cultivates the abbey garden and lives in peace until the arrival of her mortal enemy and former lover, LeMerle, now masquerading as a priest. LeMerle, whose narrative voice is interwoven with Juliette's, is accompanying the new Abbess, an 11-year-old aristocrat fanatically determined on reform.

Instantly, the essentially pagan, humanist life of the abbey is destroyed. Out goes the ancient piece of rock that superstitious "fisher-folk" pray to for a baby; in comes a sculpted version as hard and shallow as the new Abbess. Where the old Reverend Mother was kind and practical and could not read Latin, the pubescent Isabelle is burning with zeal. Juliette had even got away with keeping her long red hair beneath her wimple: now it must go. LeMerle ("it's good to have a captive audience") soon has them all in the palm of his hand. For aficionados of what could be called the Blue Nun school of fiction, it's only a matter of time before the religious repression turns into sexual expression and produces a series of visions, hauntings and crimes.

Harris is on the side of the senses - both common and sensual - and has the kind of passion for baiting Catholicism that can only come from having been formerly immersed in its doctrines. Both Juliette and LeMerle are too worldy-wise to believe in Christianity, but the essential difference between them is that Juliette, who blasphemously refuses to believe in sin, is full of charity and intellectual courage. She makes an unexpected ally of the "wild girl" Perette, and has learnt some of Copernicus's forbidden studies from a Jewish doctor who loved her mother. LeMerle, on the other hand, uses his talents only to exploit people for profit and revenge.

A weird and hugely enjoyable blend of Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon and Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, Holy Fools concentrates on the dramatic battle of wits and wills between Juliette and LeMerle. Like Huxley's "delicious monster" Urbain Grandier, LeMerle is charming, clever and sophisticated; it is a measure of the degree to which Juliette once loved him that she now despises him. Her loathing is entirely fair. Not only did he attempt to pimp her, then betray the rest of the troupe in order to save his own skin, but he now exploits the nuns' credulity. In order to keep Juliette from exposing him, he kidnaps her adored five-year-old daughter.

At this point, one feels that any mother as passionate as Juliette would simply have cut the throat of her tormentor. Juliette's last act of courage is, however, to endow him with the possibility of self-knowledge and even redemption.

It is fashionable to decry Harris's talent as a novelist, and it is true that her books can seem comically dated. It is also the case that some of her works, such as Chocolat and the splendidly dark Five Quarters of the Orange, are very much superior to others, such as Blackberry Wine and Coastliners. If, however, you consider the harm that religious fanaticism and sexual repression continue to cause, then the stories she tells appear both consoling and wise.

Amanda Craig's new novel, Love in Idleness, will be published in July by Little, Brown

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The British neoconservatives

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide