(creator: Frances Byfield)
|Father Christopher Goodwin was the priest who served an old, if crumbling, London convent. He is in his mid-forties. He "had been a priest for a long time, become afraid of being considered indispensable, nervous of his inabilities in the face of raw need ... It shocked him to realise he preferred to visit the houses and apartments of the rich, not only for the many pleasures of looking at their arrangements, but because it was usually easier on the spirit." He did not like being called Father. "He had a name, for God's sake. He was nobody's father, more was the pity".
He liked women, but stuck to his vows. He is far from secure in his faith, and had had a nervous breakdown a couple of years before: "I think it was because of a slow-burning realisation that I shouldn't be a priest, that I should be something else, and I got better when I realised that I had no choice, because it was what I was fit for even if I was a square peg in a round hole, there was no better way for me to serve God."
Father Goodwin (and his creator) would have been surprised to see him described as a detective, but it is he who succeeds in identifying the mysterious young man at the heart of this story and he turns out to be the only one who can work out what is really going on.
Francis Byfield (real name: Frances Hegarty,1948 - ) grew up in rural Derbyshire and was educated mostly in convent schools. She then studied English and went on to qualify as a solicitor, working for what is now the Crown Prosecution Service, "thus learning a bit about murder at second hand". Years later, she turned to writing full-time. She is the author of numerous novels as well as short stories for magazines and radio, and is a sometime Radio 4 contributor. She describes herself as "happily unmarried".
Seeking Sanctuary (2003)
It turns out that he had been driven out of the family home by his wife's cloying piety, and this was his way of ensuring that his daughters did not follow their mother's example (hence the references to cruelty and treachery). But 21-year-old Therese had joined a convent as a novice, and her ever-solicitious 22-year-old sister Anna ("a little touched in the head, maybe") had arranged to live next door from where she could keep an eye on what was happening in the convent grounds from a vantage point on the roof. It is she who addresses a crucifix in the chapel. "OK, Jesus, is your dad in tonight?" She looks at "the finger lounging uncomfortably upon it, with well-muscled arms, elongated torso and, to Anna's mind, greasy, outmoded hair in an unbecoming shade of brown ... ' You know what?" she said. "You can't make up your mind if you want them to be sorry for you or fancy you." Later she says, "I tell you what, Lord. You were my best fucking mate when I was a kid, and then you buggered off and left me. And I could quite see why, because you were never there at all. Big- time illusion."
Her sister, Therese, on the other hand, is a much appreciated novice ("so conscientious, so mature," as her Sister Superior calls her). As she tells Anna, "All I know is that I am usually perfectly happy and I would dearly wish the same for you." But even she can joke with a lay helper: "I'm a bit weary really, to be honest. Shagged out, as a matter of fact, Kim. Weekends in here get so wild. Clubbing Saturday night. Vodka and ketchup, ever tried it? Lethal. Sunday morning, ended up God knows where with the Sisters, sobering up and hanging out with the priests .... You know how it is. Tiring."
Then a new young gardener, a "glorious blond-haired" but, it turns out, vicious "Golden Boy", is appointed to work at the convent - and things start to go disastrously wrong, not only for Anna and Therese but for the whole community. It is Father Goodwin will finally works out who he really is.
The convent is a shrunken community of eccentric nuns, including the drunken Sister Joseph. It is Joseph who asks Therese, "How many of us have real belief? .... Agnes dreams of the bastard son who was taken from her. She sees him in every young man she encounters, although he'd be old himself, now. Barbara (the Sister Superior) thinks of the Lord as an occupational hazard. Poor Father Goodwin continues with what tattered remnants of faith he has left .... Everyone has their own God. We make the one that suits us." She, and the other nuns, are made to come alive as interesting, if often desperately unhappy, individuals.
Even Therese finds that faith is not such a simple matter as she had supposed. As Father Goodwin tells Anna, "If she trusts in the ultimate reliability of God, she denies herself essential knowledge. As soon as a God takes on human form, which all Gods do, they take on frailty, also. And they are frail. They can only work in co-operation with us."
But even the villainous "Golden Boy", says Father Goodwin, was "cursed, rather than truly evil. Cursed in the way to which many other people contributed. Including his abandoned mother, his friends he may not have chosen, and the way he came to look for recognition. A cursed man will take revenge for the absence of an identity."
It is a sophisticated and complex story that requires careful reading, and is far from being a conventional detective story, but it is written with an honesty, even a quiet desperation, that makes it quite memorable. And the ending, unlikely as it is, comes as a complete surprise.
|The cover effectively suggests the tangled, hidden lives of the characters.|