22/04/2007

Glittering Images (by Susan Howatch)

I was recommended 'Glittering Images' by a friend, some years ago. She told me it was a psychological thriller featuring Church of England clergymen in the early part of the 20th century. It was a long book - just over 500 pages - and the front cover, mostly in black [the one shown at the bottom of this review], didn't appeal to me at all.

The book sat on my shelves for awhile, until by chance I came across another novel by Susan Howatch, which I read - and loved. So one wet weekend, seven years ago, I picked up 'Glittering Images' for the first time.

The book is related by a thirty-seven-year-old widowed clergyman called Charles Ashworth. In chapter one he has tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and is asked to undertake an unusual commission. One of the bishops has apparently been creating a stir in church circles; the Archbishop is worried that this bishop, who is known for having a lot of female admirers, might have written indiscreet letters or journal entries, which could be jumped upon by the press. Charles is sent as an undercover spy to find out if this might be the case.

It doesn't sound terribly exciting, and it took me about four attempts to get into the book at first. Charles goes to stay with the bishop, supposedly to undertake some research for his next theological book, and gets chatting to several other guests. He is also strongly attracted to Lyle, the bishop's administrator, and companion to his wife. But there's some kind of mystery surrounding Lyle, who seems to be much more involved with her employers than would be expected. Charles sets out to solve it, and in doing so unravels some of his own insecurities and childhood difficulties, helped - eventually - by an intelligent and forthright monk called Jon Darrow.

That probably still sounds rather dry... and in the hands of another writer, perhaps it would have been. But Susan Howatch has a wonderful style - fast-paced, terse, yet with incredible depth into the human psyche. Her characters are totally believable, even in the bizarre circumstances that gradually emerge for some of them. Her plotting is brilliant, with cliff-hangers at the end of chapters and some most unexpected events that kept me intrigued and interested at every moment. By the time I'd read the first hundred pages or so, I could hardly put the book down.

It's shocking in places, it's exciting, it's deep, it's thought-provoking. And while the chief characters are mostly Anglican clergymen, it's a book that seems to appeal to people of all faiths or none.

I first read the book in 2000, I re-read it in 2001, and I read it again recently... enjoying it all the more despite knowing what was coming.

It's the first of six novels in the 'Starbridge' series, and I recommend it highly! Unfortunately it's currently out of print in both the USA and UK, but is widely available second-hand from both countries.

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