Glamorous Powers (by Susan Howatch)

It’s many years now since I first read Susan Howatch’s ‘Starbridge’ series, on the recommendation of a friend. I was hooked almost immediately and re-read them only a year or two later. A couple of years I decided it was time for a re-read, and did read and thoroughly enjoyed, again, the first, ‘Glittering Images’. But it’s only in the past few days that I decided to re-read the second in the series.

'Glamorous Powers' is told from the point of view of Jonathan Darrow, the middle-aged and brilliant Abbot who counsels (and sorts out) Charles in the first book. Susan Howatch is very gifted at showing different points of view, getting inside people’s heads and showing the contrast between their outward appearance and their inner thoughts and struggles. While Jon’s life is not as fragmented or deliberately ‘glittering’ as Charles’, he has a great deal in his past which is still unresolved…

We meet him as he’s experiencing a dramatic vision, one which he thinks is leading him to leave the monastery and resume some kind of life in ‘the world’. He has to discuss with with Francis Ingram, the cheif Abbot in the order, and rather an old nemesis of Jon’s; the two have known each other since university days, when they had some quite serious clashes, and their paths haven’t crossed all that much as their churchmanship and theology are very different. Jon doesn’t in the least want to submit to Francis’ non-mystical style of leadership, but has no alternative.

So the first quarter of the book is taken up with discussions between the two, and a gradual unfolding of the past, with Jon gradually becoming less arrogant and more willing to listen. Part two sees him beginning on his new journey; part three sees his arrogance come to the fore, and some terrible things happening before things finally come together.

It’s hard to say much about the plot without giving things away; sufficie it to say that the writing is excellent, the dialogue crisp, the psychology believable, at least to this layperson, and even knowing most of the plot in advance, the storyline still very gripping indeed. I had tears in my eyes at one particularly moving scene at the end of part three, and a thrill as I came to the final pages, remembering what was to come, yet wanting to read it slowly, to savour every word.

This style of writing is not for everyone; it’s steeped in mid-century churchmanship, with assumptions made that the reader understands ‘high church’ and ‘broad church’, liturgy, hierarchies and so on. It also assumes benignity towards Christianity, and an acceptance that God exists and is interested in individuals. Those without faith - or of other faiths - could certainly read this, but would have to put aside some of their preconceived ideas first.

Indeed, many who Christians may need to put aside some of their ideas about the church, or at least about those who run it. The priests and monks are quite frank about their failings and temptations, constantly fighting battles for self-control and discipline, while often giving in to their human nature.

There’s nothing particularly sordid about this; yet there is undoubtedly ‘adult’ content and ideas. Some might find the contents shocking; others may find it eye-opening; some may see it as exaggeration. For me, this book provides insights into humanity and frailty, and is, overall, full of hope.

Highly recommended to those who like a good story, who understand mysticism and temptation, or who are interested in good stories about churchmen, set in the middle of the 20th century.

Review copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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