01/01/1998

Susan Howatch

For some reason I had never heard of Susan Howatch until the end of 1999. Then, browsing in our one and only thrift store, I picked up a book called 'Glittering Images'. I bought it for a few pence, along with a few other novels. And put it aside.

A few months later I came across 'A Question of Integrity' and decided to read it one weekend. I was hooked almost within the first chapter. The book begins from the perspective of Alice, a rather shy and unattractive unmarried girl in her thirties who comes across a church which has a thriving healing ministry. She is strongly attracted to the leader of this ministry and their first encounter leads to a series of incidents, the story moving forwards while the past unfolds. The writing was superb, the characters believable, the plot brilliantly woven..

Having read this powerful book I was eager for more of the same. I pulled out 'Glittering Images' and sat down to read. It did take a couple of chapters before I felt the same sense of being drawn into a real world, surrounded by people I could relate to. This book is set in the 1930s, in the fictional Starbridge, which was based on the British city of Salisbury. A young, and rather ambitious priest, Charles Ashworth, is sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to investigate an outspoken bishop, who - he suspects - may have incriminating letters or other evidence of immoral behaviour. Charles finds that he likes the bishop, and is intrigued by the strange ménage à trois in the household: the bishop, his wife, and his wife's companion Lyle. Charles finds Lyle attractive and tries to talk to her but finds her strangely reluctant, although not unwilling to be friends.

Again the past unfolds as the story moves ahead, with new revelations explaining past actions. Charles has gone to find out about another household, but his own past and insecurities come back to haunt him, leading to a spiritual breakdown, and some wise counselling. Yet although this book deals with Christian issues, it appeals also to those outside the church as a strong psychological novel, looking at the stresses which can exist in even the more apparently secure, bright people. Charles has been hiding behind the 'glittering image' which he presents to the world, and must make some changes before he can move ahead in his calling.

'Glittering Images' is the first of six books which form a series about Starbridge, bringing the characters into the 1970s, each book revealing a new facet, told by a different person. While it's possible to read any of them alone, or indeed in any order, it is probably best to read the books in the order in which they were written, to find the full psychological force and understanding. It was as I was reading through the series that I realised 'A question of Integrity' is a sort of sequel - not set in Starbridge, but bringing back some of the characters, in a different setting in the 1980s. Susan Howatch's latest book, 'The High Flier' is a sequel to that.

After reading the Starbridge series, I found the older saga novels which Susan Howatch wrote before her conversion to Christianity. Again I found them gripping, although I did not enjoy them as much as the Starbridge books. 'The Rich are Different' and its sequel 'Sins of the Fathers' are set in the high finance world of London banking and Wall Street. I have no interest or knowledge of these topics, yet the style of the novels was similar: people developed, and the past unfolded to intertwine with the present, as various characters took up the story from their own points of view.

I found these novels a little chilling at times, not because of any suspense or horror, but because some characters seemed almost inhumanly cold. Cornelius, the main character of 'Sins of the Fathers' is narcissistic in his ambition: he sees people as objects to manipulate in his single-minded objectives. Yet even in the most unpleasant characters, there is explanation for their behaviour, insights into how their upbringing carried over into their adulthood.

One aspect of Susan Howatch's books which makes them stand apart is that they are mostly based on real historic characters, and situations which happened, although with fictional additions - and in some cases at different periods of history. The Starbridge novels all have notes at the back explaining the inspiration for the characters and their setting. The others are based on various upper-class families, even royalty.

Susan Howatch's books are not light reading. Yet at whatever level we read them - as exciting novels, as exercises in understanding depths of complex characters, as providing new understanding into theology or banking, or as historic analogies - these books are superbly written, with fine attention to detail, and satisfying conclusions where the plots neatly draw to a close, and the ends are neatly tied. Susan Howatch well deserves her increasing readership in Europe and America.

Sagas:
Penmarric
Cashelmara
The Rich are Different
The Sins of the Fathers
The Wheel of Fortune

Starbridge:
Glittering Images
Glamorous Powers
Ultimate Prizes
Scandalous Risks
Mystical Paths
Absolute Truths

St Benet's:
A Question of Integrity (known as 'The Wonder Worker' in the USA)
The High Flyer
Heartbreaker

Gothics:
The Devil on Lammas Night
The Waiting Sands
The Shrouded Walls
The Dark Shore
April's Grave
Call in the Night

1 comment:

petpaint said...

I already did this but i'LL DO IT AGAIN. I am taking on the task of correlating Susan Howatch's books because there are several characters from different novels who have been in the same place at the same time. She's a genius!