REVIEWED BY: Joe Kilgore
“Surveying the scene the single row of cottages looked idyllic – a typical country vista: a perverse distortion of the fact.”
Enthralling is surely a term that should be used judiciously when speaking about a book, yet it seems the perfect word to describe this tale of historical, social, religious, and philosophical self-examination that is at the center of this beguiling novel. First, there is the way it is written. It is recounted in the voice of the protagonist’s Brit named Paul. The English language, written as if spoken by an Englishman, is often quite different than the same language written as if spoken by an American. This narrative is definitely the former. If one has a difficult time with that, it may prove slow going initially. On the other hand, if one enjoys the lilt and beauty of the mother tongue, it’s a treat indeed. Imagine a story being recounted by the likes of a sardonic John Cleese or a whimsical Eric Idle. Humor is the aphrodisiac the author uses to lure readers into this tale. Irony and wit increase as the pages multiply, though sometimes, without warning, the tome becomes less Monty Python and more of a Ken Russell fever dream. Frequent sex and occasional violence are intricately woven into the fabric of this most British mosaic, which makes excellent use of the writer’s extensive vocabulary.
As for the story itself, we learn of a shy young boy from Northern England reared by his single mother. Raised in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, he becomes an altar boy along with many of his school chums. One day the lads partake too heavily of the altar wine. They decide to give a mass of their own with their heads heavy with drink and their pants around their ankles “the better to end with a masturbatory flourish. Interrupted in their unorthodox bacchanalia by the shocked and outraged parish priest, a melee ensues” a melee made even more memorable when the ladies auxiliary walks in on the scene, misconstrues the situation, and begins to pummel the purely innocent clergyman. Oh well, boys will be boys.
Somewhat after the aforementioned childhood adventure, we find Paul as a young man living on his own in London and working as a writer, mainly of biographies, and currently involved in finishing a book on Sir Walter Scott. Soon, he becomes involved with a friend of his mother, who has recently passed away. The friend offers him the loan of his cottage in the countryside of Yorkshire so that he may finish his literary endeavors in peace and quiet. Paul’s sojourn to the country takes up the majority of the rest of the novel. It includes associations with unforgettable village folk, frequent and long-lasting nights filled with drinking to excess, free love among couples, triples, and the community as a whole, plus a plunge into the lineage of the inhabitants that will eventually take on the gravest of consequences.
Cumiskey is a writer of inestimable talent. He moves his yarn along at a pleasant pace and frequently supplies insightful perception with articulate precision, such as when he observes, “it is a common sign of human frailty that if a stranger pays complimentary attention to some aspects of one’s work, suddenly the sky is blue, the birds are singing and one’s most private thoughts are immediately an open book.” No less is his skill at painting descriptive passages with both cinematic and visceral impact: “When I left the shop for the street outside, a piercing wind swept down from points north scything its way across the countryside. It was a thin, mean current of ice cold air seeking out bared flesh with the intensity of a surgeon’s scalpel.” Cumiskey’s history of one man’s struggle with his conscience, his principles, his beliefs, and his behavior, along with the incidences that arise from that battle, make not only for involving intellectual stimulation but also for a whole lot of fun. This is an erudite tale told exceptionally well. It is a pleasure to read and will likely be long remembered by those who do.