27/09/2014

Glittering Images (by Susan Howatch)

I love this book! It’s many years, now, since a friend recommended Susan Howatch’s work to me, commenting that her novels - and particularly the ‘Starbridge’ series - were essentially Christian psychological thrillers. That didn’t sound like a particularly appealing genre, but I trusted my friend’s judgement - and am so glad I did.

It took me a while to get into ‘Glittering Images’ the first time I read it. The second time, just a year later, I read a lot more quickly. I enjoyed it again in 2007, but that’s some time ago now. I picked it up again recently as I had come across a few quotations from it in a non-fiction book I was reading. I thought I might skim it - but was soon hooked again.

The story features 37-year old Charles Ashworth, an ordained minister who works in academic circles, and is a friend of the Archbishop. It’s set in the early part of the 20th century using some real people (or characters based on real individuals) but Charles is entirely fictional. He is given a mission by the Archbishop, to visit the Bishop of Starbridge and check whether he is or has done anything indiscreet, which might be pounced upon by the media.

Charles really doesn’t want to do this, but feels he can’t refuse this assignment. He is, in any case, quite interested to learn how the Bishop’s household functions: his wife Carrie is considered attractive but fluffy, while the Bishop is a strong-minded academic. Carrie has a companion, Lyle, who is known to be ultra-efficient.. and Charles is surprised at how attractive he finds her....

While the book is somewhat rambling in places, with a great deal of conversation, I found, once again, that it was remarkably difficult to put down. I could remember the broad outline of the plot, of course, and the eventual resolution - but much of the detail intrigued me all over again.

Perhaps Charles’ problems, which eventually surface in dramatic events, are caricatured and exaggerated. Perhaps the psychological investigation that follows - and helps him uncover them - is a bit too neat and tidy. But it makes very exciting reading, and Charles’ advisor - the mystical monk Jon Darrow - is a most intriguing character.

The writing is powerful, often quite terse (other than in the conversations) and dramatic, with very clever plotting as events and memories unfold. It didn’t grip me quite as much as it did that first time, and I didn’t feel as drawn to Charles as I did years ago - but still, it was a very enjoyable read, with some great insights into possible reasons for some behaviours.

The book has been criticised as suggesting that Anglican ministers are naturally as described in the book, but I don’t really think that’s fair: Charles and the Bishop of Starbridge are unusual, in contrast to the majority of other hard-working and ethical vicars around the country. My one reservation at recommending it widely is that there’s one somewhat explicit - and shocking - scene, and quite a lot of frank discussion about intimacies throughout the book. Perhaps it’s low-key compared to the majority of modern novels, but I would hesitate to recommend this to anyone under the age of about 16.

Still, it’s a book I will no doubt return to in future, yet again, and one that I recommend highly to friends.

Still in print, and now available inexpensively for the Kindle too.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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