29/08/2007

Scandalous Risks (by Susan Howatch)

Susan Howatch is such a good writer! She combines great characterisation with in-depth psychological understanding of people, and mixes them into gripping plot-lines, set in realistic situations. Her Starbridge series about the Church of England during the early to mid 20th century is - in my view - the peak of her work, although she doesn't seem able to write a bad book.

'Scandalous Risks' is the fourth of the Starbridge books, which - surpisingly - is currently out of print in the UK, although widely available second hand. It's narrated by Venetia, from the perspective of her late twenties when she was struggling with her identity in 1963. Venetia is from an upper-class background, in the days when class was much more significant than it is now. She is very intelligent, but decided against going to university. She feels as if her parents can't really be bothered with her, but she has no idea what she does want out of life. She feels that she really ought to get married - or at least have fall in love.

She's very fond of the Dean of Starbridge, Neville Asygarth, known to his friends and family as Stephen. Aysgarth is in his sixties, and has a rather irritating society wife called Dido. His story is told in much more depth - from his perspective - in the third Starbridge book, 'Ultimate Prizes'; reading the books in order undoubtedly adds to their depth, but Susan Howatch is a skilled enough writer that it's entirely possible to read any of the books on their own. There are no annoying flashbacks, and each book is complete in itself.

Venetia has always known Aysgarth as a friend of her father's, from the time she first met him when she was nine. His daughter Primrose is about her age, and one of her closest friends. So when she decides to go and stay with Primrose for a while, she naturally sees a fair amount of the Dean. Suddenly things change, and she realises she is falling in love with him. Unfortunately, he finds this irresistable...

Alongside this main plot, which runs through the book, is considerable discussion of the book 'Honest to God' which had recently been published in 1963, and which I read recently out of interest. The book, despite having been written by an Anglican bishop, proposes a completely new idea of God, ignores the Incarnation, and - most significantly for this book - talks about a 'new morality' based entirely on love.

Aysgarth, a liberal who is a great fan of 'Honest to God', is quite sure that he and Venetia can have a loving, platonic relationship so long as nobody gets hurt, and so long as the relationship is not consummated. But naturally, it's not that simple in reality.. Susan Howatch very effectively shows the extreme dangers of such philosophies.

Meanwhile Aysgarth is also having trouble in his job as Dean, wanting to buy a rather controversial sculpture to display in the church-yard, amongst other issues. He comes up frequently against his Bishop, Charles Ashworth (whose story is told from his perspective in 'Glittering Images', the first book in the Starbridge series).

'Scandalous Risks' is slightly different from the other books in the series so far, in that it actually opens and closes in 1988, twenty-five years after the main events of the story, with Venetia taking a wrong turning from the motorway and finding herself back in Starbridge for the first time since 1963. This works very well, and leads to a very hopeful and positive ending despite everything.

It took me a little longer to get into this book than was the case with the earlier ones in the series, but - as so often happens - by the time I was half-way through it was almost impossible to put down, even though I had read it a couple of times before.

I am interested to see that 'Scandalous Risks' is still in print in the USA, even though it's a very 'English' book!

Definitely recommended, preferably after reading the first three Starbridge books in order.

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