15/09/2008

A Man like any Other (by Mary Cavanagh)

I first came across Mary Cavanagh when I was sent her debut novel, 'The Crowded Bed' by The Bookbag for reviewing. I very much enjoyed it, despite a bizarre opening and unusual theme, and looked forward to reading more by the same author.

So I was pleased when The Bookbag sent me a copy of Mary Cavanagh's second book recently, and have been reading it for the last few days.

"A man like any other' - with subtitle 'The Priest's Tale' - is the story of Marina Proudfoot, who has just died. She is mourned in different ways by four people, whose stories are also explored during the course of the novel.

Tim, Marina's gay son, was very attached to her. He and his lover, Roger, plan to live together once his mother has gone. Roger's wife Sally knows this will happen, so this is a major turning point in her life. She is going to work as a grief counsellor at an Abbey, where she will report to Father Ewan.

Ewan has been counselling Marina for over twenty years - and they have also been having a passionate affair. As the crisis approached, Marina wrote some recollections of her past, to be read by Father Ewan after she had gone, and he starts to think back to his earliest memories from childhood.

The novel is cleverly written, interspersing action in the present - Tim grieving deeply for his mother; Sally meeting Father Ewan for the first time - and the past. And the reader quickly learns something far more shocking than any of the characters could imagine. I found it quite tiring reading at first; I felt drained by some of the emotion, and I also had to pause between chapters to consider the implications of new revelations. By the end, though, I was racing to find out what was going to happen.

I did like Father Ewan. He's a priest who is very human, struggling to work for God and help the bereaved, while living a secret life. I also liked Sally, whose loyalty is down-to-earth and realistic. I didn't much like Roger, though. He seemed a very selfish person, wanting to have everything, while unable to relate to Tim's grieving. Tim himself seemed rather weak, full of guilt for something which isn't revealed until later in the book, although I guessed what it was.

I found the ending a bit frustrating. And yet, once I'd finished, I'm not sure that anything else would have worked. It's a tribute to the author that I found myself imagining what could have happened if circumstances were different for some hours afterwards - if Tim hadn't done this, or Roger hadn't done that, or Sally hadn't phoned when she did... clearly they all got under my skin.

I have only two small criticisms of this book. The first is the amount of bad language. As in Mary Cavanagh's other novel, there was an excessive use of just one four-letter word, in many different grammatical forms. I was disappointed that such a good writer could not find at least a few other words to replace it.

My other problem was the somewhat explicit descriptions of some of the love scenes. Still, it was easy enough to skim these passages, and there weren't very many of them.

All in all, I'd recommend it highly - just be warned that the language is definitely '18' rated.

Note that my longer review of 'A Man Like Any Other' can be found at the Bookbag site.

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