Ultimate Prizes (by Susan Howatch)

Susan Howatch is undoubtedly one of my top ten favourite modern writers, and it's her 'Starbridge' series of six novels about clergymen in the Church of England during the 20th century that I like best of all. I first read them seven years ago, then re-read only a year later. Now I'm reading them again, more slowly, and enjoying every moment.

Ultimate Prizes is the third in the series, following on from 'Glittering Images' and 'Glamorous Powers'. It's perhaps the most powerful of them all, featuring Neville Aysgarth, the Archdeacon. Despite narrating the book, so that we see everything through his eyes, he comes across as a rather manipulative and selfish man, rushing after 'prizes', ignoring anything remotely painful or embarrassing, and enjoying his success as a top administrator. Indeed, the book opens with his admittance that he almost committed adultery - and then takes us to the time when he met a delightful young lady just about the time when his wife was feeling over-tired and unsocial. So immediately the scene is set for a man we probably can't trust.

Yet Neville, like all Howatch's characters, is immensely complicated. He wants to serve God - at least, he thinks so - and he is very fond of his wife and large family. His past has been rather painful - an idyllic childhood for seven years, followed by tragically altered circumstances and the rest of his youth being spent having to shape up to his rather harsh uncle's dictates, and push for success. Hints of this are given at the start of the novel, but it's only as life becomes unbearable for Neville after a series of very difficult circumstances that he finally admits to needing help and seeks counselling.

Jon Darrow, wise advisor in the first book and narrator of the second, returns in his wise counsellor role despite frequently clashing with Neville in the past. Sparks fly, but both men learn through the process of dealing with an emergency; the latter part of the book is gripping and fast-paced, and kept me reading for most of an afternoon until I could finish it, feeling surprisingly drained at the conclusion.

This book, alas, is currently out of print in both the USA and UK, but is widely available second-hand in both.

Highly recommended.

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