10/05/2009

Home to Holly Springs (by Jan Karon)

Jan Karon is a popular American Christian author. She is best known for her nine-volume 'Mitford' series about Father Tim, an Episcopalian priest in a small town. The series begins with 'At Home in Mitford', where Tim is a sixty-year-old bachelor and ends with 'Light from Heaven', where Tim - now married - has retired.

So I was delighted to learn that Jan Karon has begun a new series, probably three books, about Father Tim's childhood and background. The first of these is 'Return to Holly Springs', where he takes a trip to the place where he grew up. Reviews on Amazon were very mixed, but eventually, when it was out in paperback, I put it on my wishlist and was delighted to receive it for my birthday.

In this book, Father Tim is seventy but still young at heart. He has been sent a cryptic note from Holly Springs, simply asking him to come home. His wife is unable to accompany him, so he takes Barnabas, his elderly dog, and sets off for the town where he has not returned in forty years. He hopes that he might manage to get in contact with some old friends - if they are still alive - and perhaps come to terms with a few of the demons of his past.

I did find the book rather slow moving, in the early chapters. Tim meets a lot of people, most of whom speak in a dialogue that's not familiar to me. It was used by a few people in the Mitford books, but there's a lot more of it in this one, and it rather slowed down my reading. The story changes frequently from past to present, as Tim manages to get in touch with various people, and there's then a flashback where we learn about them in his childhood. There are also ongoing memories of his beloved mother, and his father whom he remembers with some anger and bitterness. I enjoyed the back stories although the sheer volume of characters was a bit confusing at first.

Still, the pace did pick up a bit and by the time I was half way through the book, I found that I was more and more interested in the plot. I suppose if I'm honest there were too many coincidences. It's a small town, admittedly, and most people know each other. But several of the meetings with old friends and acquaintances did seem rather contrived. They were written from the perspective of God co-ordinating them, which made them seem more believable, but I couldn't help feeling that everything fit together slightly too neatly at times.

But it's only a minor criticism. Some people have criticised the book more severely for becoming too psychological, or for involving Tim in a rather murkier past than would have been guessed. There is also criticism about the very minor swear words that were used, although in the UK these words are hardly significant. More disturbing for me was the continual use of 'ma'am' and 'sir' by Tim and others... words which seem sarcastic, almost rude from my perspective, but are of course intended as forms of respect in the Southern states of the USA.

The dramatic discoveries nearer the end of the book included one that I had been expecting for a few chapters; clues were certainly there, so that although there were one or two surprises, the main one was not unexpected - and thus not unrealistic. Everything was nicely wrapped up, with even a very short epilogue/afterword to tie up one last thread. I like to see books end tidily, so I didn't mind at all that there was something of a 'happy ever after' feel.

If you haven't read the Mitford series, you probably wouldn't find this book at all interesting. If you like Mitford only for the small-town niceness, I suppose you might find this one a bit psychologically complex and murky. But for anyone who has enjoyed the series, doesn't mind a rather deeper book, and would like to know more about Father Tim and his background, I'd definitely recommend it.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 10th May 2009

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