A Novel Ian Likes: Holy Mother by Gabrielle Donnelly

Anne, Stephen, Maureen, Denis, Geoffrey and Kate meet every Friday night at their local Catholic church under the tutelage of Father Bob. The group is also planning a pilgrimage in honour of Bob’s impending 30th birthday. But when Maureen invites her old friend Alison to join them one evening, half as a joke, it has repercussions they couldn’t possibly have imagined…

Gabrielle Donnelly is probably most famous for her 2011 novel, The Little Women Letters, which follows the adventures of the descendants of Jo March. Holy Mother (1987) was her first novel.

This book begins after a lot of other novels would have finished: with the wedding of two characters. In fact, looking at it like that, it’s possible to see what a few of the other characters would have gotten up to during their meet-cute and courtship.

At any rate, we soon discover that Catholicism is pretty much all they have in common with each other. It’s hard to imagine how many of them might have come into each other’s orbits in the way they have without a religious discussion group to unite them. But the disparate personalities trying to resolve their own individual faith against that of people who are remarkably different to them is what gives the novel a lot of its spark: these are people who really have different ideas about what the world should be, and not all of them agree with what the Church has set out for them.

Let’s take a quick look at the characters so that we can judge what’s going on with each of them.

Anne and Stephen are recently married. Anne is a schoolteacher who never considered herself “enough” for the joys of life to even approach her. So, she is constantly surprised at just how much happiness life has given her in the form of marriage to Stephen. Almost as much happiness as she gets from her other love, singing. Stephen is a quiet, withdrawn man, who suffers from being the younger brother of an actor who has always been the golden boy in their family.

Maureen is a university lecturer. She’s smart, fiercely loyal to her friends but also a spiky, angry person who doesn’t let friendship get in the way of what she sees as being right.

Denis is a journalist, always on the lookout for a big story. He’s smart, funny and goodhearted, but careful not to get too attached to people around him because of his dark family secret.

Kate is a bookstore clerk who has admired Denis since the day they first met. But she’s too frightened to say anything, or even to live the life she longs to.

Geoffrey works for a minor political party. He is a recent convert to Catholicism but has lived a life steeped in history and literature and aspires to a life where his sacrifices for what he believes in can be recognised for the astonishing feats he believes them to be.

Father Bob has settled into life in his parish. He’s on his way to becoming a fixture in the local community but often wonders if there’s something more to life than being a priest.

And Alison has recently returned to London from a long stint in the US. She’s trying to catch up with her old life, while beginning a new stage of her career with a boss who has a more than professional interest in her.

We get these stories laid out to us in the first forty or fifty pages and the book spends the next 200 or so getting through them and exploring what happens next. It’s a quiet, almost domestic novel, but it touches on the big concerns of life in a way that makes you wish you knew some of these people (except maybe Geoffrey). Donnelly’s skill is in bringing out characters from just a few words or sentences so that we have a hunch as to what’s coming next but can still be surprised by it. She also makes us like these characters: they’re witty and fun, as well as concerned about the state of their souls. The dialogue they utter is frequently hilarious, but it’s touched with reality, making them folks you want to be around, or that remind you of people you know. I’ve known several Maureens, for instance; I’ve been friends with a few Stephens and Annes; and I have had the occasional Geoffrey drawn into my orbit.

Anyway, the major storyline around which all the others revolve in this is Bob’s birthday. The plan is that the group are going to go on a pilgrimage to a local religious site on Bob’s birthday and surprise him with a celebration. Bob, of course, doesn’t believe that anyone knows of his natal day, and is going along with it, completely in the dark.

In the meantime, we have our cast going about their everyday lives…

Look, there is a lot going on in this book: you have Maureen breaking up with her boyfriend and meeting someone new; Alison dealing with the dilemma of her married boss coming on to her; Denis struggling with the idea that he must avoid emotional involvement with other people because of the mental illness that plagues his family, as well as realising that a mate of his has uncovered a story that incriminates Geoffrey; Kate and her crisis of faith; Geoffrey not being aware that he is part of a political scandal; Stephen and Anne dealing with the early days of their marriage and Stephen’s brother wanting to “help” Anne make something of her singing; Bob wondering if the priesthood is for him after all… and following them all is the spectre of their faith, making them react to situations in ways that help or hinder them.

But this “lot” that’s going has surprisingly small stakes. At worst, there are careers and friendships on the line. For a novel that purports to be about people’s relationship with their faith and their religion, this is surprisingly small beer.

Which is the point, I think. Most of us go through life without facing huge dilemmas terribly often. We often find that our principles aren’t tested much beyond choosing who we speak to or what brand name we buy. And that’s what this book explores and celebrates. Donnelly posits that, for matters of faith, all decisions can have an impact on our lives and our morality. And that it isn’t the quality of the situation or dilemma, it’s the choice that’s important, and the belief and knowledge that backs it up.

So the world remains largely the same as it was at the start of the novel. Although the religious discussion group that met on the first page has become decidedly different to what it was by the end, which is what you want from a good story, despite some of the characters doing things that you know they might not be able to come back from.

It sounds like I love it, doesn’t it? I do, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it more than 30 years after I first read it. I mean, it’s got faults: Denis’s back story wavers between having him being  a Londoner or as coming from Ireland, but a little investment of belief on the part of the reader can come up with an explanation for that (and some day there’s going to be a book that gives me an excuse to go on for ages about the difference between “suspension of disbelief” and “investment of belief”); and it does strain that belief a little to think that there’s a religious discussion group in central London that consists entirely of white folks in their late 20s/early 30s. And Stephen and Anne, who open our book, play very little part in the conclusion of it, save that they are already moving on to the sequel to that story we didn’t get before this one.

But for those faults, it’s a book that talks about belief and integrity and respect in ways that most of us should be able to relate to and understand. It’s also quietly entertaining and wise, making you think a bit harder about where you belong.

You can find out more about Gabrielle Donnelly at https://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/client/gabrielle-donnelly

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