(Arcadia Books £18.99, 416pp)
by Michael Arditti (Arcadia Books £18.99, 416pp)
In Arditti’s latest, Christianity meets the culture wars spawning moral dilemmas aplenty, especially for rector Clarissa Phipps. Her Cheshire church houses a stunning series of paintings by now-deceased artist Seward Wemlock, whose bohemian lifestyle may have provided cover for shocking crimes.
But the fate of the paintings pales after Clarissa discovers that her best friend’s husband is engaged in sexual activity with a 15-year-old boy, leaving her wrestling with her conscience, her faith, and the knowledge that her choices are likely to destroy lives.
Arditti’s fondness for comic flourishes adds levity to what is not infrequently a discomforting exploration of art, religion and morality — one that, with the fate of artist Eric Gill’s oeuvre back in the headlines, feels very current.
It’s an absorbing family drama, too, with Clarissa satisfyingly stepping out from the long shadows of her past.
(Quercus £16.99, 368pp)
by Lucy Atkins
(Quercus £16.99, 368pp)
Eighty-something former RSC-star Astrid lives in a decaying Sussex windmill with her dachshunds and doughty housekeeper, Mrs Baker.
No surprise that the precarity of the landmark is a metaphor for Astrid’s own psychological state, her carefully curated peace of mind threatened by the reappearance of her ‘national treasure’ ex-husband, Magnus, whose death-bed memoir is set to reignite the scandal that ended Astrid’s career.
Just what did happen one night 45 years ago in a Tudor hunting lodge between Magnus, Astrid, a hell-raising director and a vulnerable young star?
The mystery requires the whole novel to play out, interspersed as it is with the history of the windmill’s former owner, Astrid’s novel money-making endeavours and Mrs Barker’s own dark past.
Writing-wise, there’s heavy weather to get through at the start, and it takes a while to settle into the determinedly circumlocutory plot. Nevertheless, Atkins’ enjoyably cosy yarn builds to a powerful and deftly executed denouement as she pursues themes of friendship, memory, perception and truth.
(Hutchinson Heinemann £16.99, 288pp)
by Neil Blackmore (Hutchinson Heinemann £16.99, 288pp)
Blackmore travels to Regency London to bring to life the extraordinary true scandal of the ‘Vere Street Coterie’. In a lavishly decorated ‘molly house’, gay men and their ‘girls’ — glamorous, sharp-witted drag queens — enjoy not just the freedom to pursue their desires, but the sanctity of marriage, thanks to radical preacher John Church.
But narrator Church’s weddings are set against the grisly backdrop of the stocks and gallows as this is a time when homosexuality is punishable by death — and John’s own impetuous nature sees him hurtling headlong into mortal danger as he pursues his passion for Ned, an African abolitionist.
Full of urgent questions about individual and collective freedoms and the writing of history, this is in fact most memorable as a character study. And if Church’s unreliability as a narrator occasionally falls a little flat, his psychic damage and emotional blinkers render him terribly, compellingly real.
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