Fleur Dorrell reviews her favourite novels with sacred themes.
It’s so rare to find a Biblical novel told through the eyes of a woman and her family, largely because far fewer women than men are named in the Scriptures and often in little detail. Dinah enters into the book of Genesis and her life seems short and brutal amid the traditional world of Jacob and his twelve sons. Yet Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent is a captivating story of ancient womanhood, family loyalty and honour.
We begin with Dinah’s four mothers, the four wives of Jacob – each of whom displays a range of feminine characteristics. We end with Dinah’s own unforgettable story of betrayal, grief and love. We see that women in every age are not that different in their desires and gifts, their hopes and dreams. Dinah might get little credit in the Bible but this novel restores her place for women across the world.
Another biblical novel based on the Old Testament book of Esther. This daring, beautiful and exceptionally wise heroine, rose to the position of queen of the Persian empire but sacrificed love in exchange for the lives of her people. The Gilded Chamber shows Kohn’s hand in both meticulous research with electrifying narrative.
Esther’s journey from girl to woman is revealed against the opulence of the Royal Court, its harem and its political alliances. To deliver her people, Esther must win the heart of the king. The price is steep – to renounce her dreams and surrender herself to a man she can never love are the ransom she will pay. Duty and love are redefined as Esther becomes the queen of freedom at the expense of her own.
Film adaptation, with Alec Guinness (DVD – 1985)
Monsignor Quixote, is Graham Greene’s wonderful tribute to Cervantes’s ‘Don Quixote’. Quixote and his travelling companion, Sancho – the Mayor of El Toboso, embark on a life-changing trip that is plagued with all sorts of challenges. From being pursued by the police and Church officials, to helping a convict who holds them hostage, from protecting a statue of the Virgin Mary from being desecrated, to escaping from the presbytery bedroom window – there is never a dull moment.
Yet behind their hilarious adventures hides a superb thread about the triumph of humanity over two global concepts: religion and communism. Quixote defends the virtues of Catholicism, and the Mayor, the principles of communism. The most unforgettable conversations are when Quixote tries to explain the Trinity using three wine bottles, and the events inside a Trappist monastery. These two travellers become friends through reconciling their differences without compromising their beliefs. What happens at the end is a perfect definition of faith, love and friendship.
Another great Graham Greene masterpiece is The Power and the Glory, Vintage Classics. Set in a poor slum of Southern Mexico in the 1930s, where the paramilitary have taken control and persecuted all the clergy. God is not welcome, but pro-actively hunted down through a systematic killing of the Catholic priests and the eradication of all things religious. However, with Greene, salvation often comes in the form of the least likely heroes.
This is a novel about self-discovery and the possibilities and delights of change in any age but especially here in old age. Having just retired from teaching, Julia Garnet has been left a legacy which she decides to use by leaving her very ordered life in England to going and live in Venice.
Immediately she is captivated by its light, architecture, art and beauty. As Venice begins to reveal its secrets and treasures, Julia’s lifetime of reserve is pushed aside for unexpected pleasures.
Not only do her habits and senses alter and ignite, but she’s touched by the spirit of the Archangel Raphael as described in the Old Testament Book of Tobit. This brilliant, ancient tale of Tobias – Tobit’s only son, who travels to the city of Media to receive help for his ailing Dad, and unaware he’s accompanied by the Archangel Raphael, weaves its way through Julia’s own journey.
The two stories – old and new, interweave with all kinds of characters, leading Julia and us on a spiritual journey that will delight us forever.
Catherine Fox has created the modern response to Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles with this trilogy set in the fictional Anglican diocese of Lindchester. There are three books in the series: Acts and Omissions, Unseen Things Above and Realms of Glory.
Acts and Omissions
Freddie May is a troubled but brilliant choral singer, while the Bishop of Lindchester seems happy with family life, but is he really? As we canter through a year in the life of the diocese and the Cathedral Close – behind curtains and chasubles all manner of things are not well. Acts and Omissions is funny and tragic, messy and stunning, tense and redeeming. It’s Christianity as we know it best.
Unseen Things Above
Freddie’s been away so what brings him back? University lecturer Jane, a staunch feminist and agnostic, unexpectedly finds love with the gorgeous archdeacon but she doesn’t believe in marriage. Ed and Neil do believe in marriage but are they allowed to make this commitment? The bishop’s resigned rather quickly so who will take his place? Unseen Things Above takes us from Easter to Advent and we meet humanity and divinity in all their wounds and glory.
Realms of Glory
Will everyone and everything be sorted out? The author certainly hopes so. Will the new bishop save the Cathedral or destroy it? With choristers and families, new relationships and vocations all vying for attention and care – is it any wonder that only something deeper and transcendent can cope with daily life in Lindchester. From elderly wisdom to sublime music, political chess to financial ruin, only one person can help the diocese survive. Realms of Glory shows who’s boss.
Arditti is considered to be a modern Graham Greene in his ability to present characters and plots in which faith and doubt go hand in hand with extraordinary elegance and grace. Easter is the perfect example.
If you want to grapple with the problem of evil, the nature of God and what suffering means right here, right now then Easter invites us to sit with a Holocaust survivor, an African princess to AIDS patients and Queen Elizabeth II, among other less notable but just as exceptional characters. The sacred and the secular meet between the nuance of language and the gift of grace. Salvation can be offered to everyone, and Arditti shows us how. His novels are the sermons we rarely hear. Here we see that death and resurrection cannot be explored any more powerfully, except within the Bible itself.
The Anointed; Of Men and Angels; The Breath of Night and The Enemy of the Good are some of his other great novels.
Judas has always had a very bad press in and out of the Bible. How could he not for betraying Jesus to his death with such a simple kiss? We all know the story of Judas in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but what about Judas’s own story told through his eyes?
In this seemingly controversial novel, roughly forty years after the death of Jesus, Judas gets to tell the story as he remembers it. Stead takes us back to Judas and Jesus’ childhoods, their teenage years, school time and friendship. Stead imagines a different side to the story where Judas who has known Jesus his whole life, presents a unique angle on their upbringing and their family homes. As we journey with them and the other disciples, in the face of Roman occupation and Temple allegiance, the context in which we see their friendship and rivalry threatened, becomes clearer. The snippets we read in the gospels might be closer to the truth, but this fiction reminds us that there is always more than one way to interpret the drama of life, and to follow Jesus more closely.
Film adaption with Keira Knightly, James McEvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave (DVD – 2007).
It’s 1935, and Briony Tallis, a thirteen year old, espies her attractive older sister taking her clothes off and diving into the fountain in their country house garden. It’s the hottest day of the year, and while Briony with her lively imagination watches her sibling, she sees another person, Robbie Turner, watching her sister too. At the end of the day, the sun has gone down, but Briony commits a crime for which she is far too naïve to understand its devastating implications, yet will change all three lives forever.
Briony will try to atone for this crime throughout Word War II as she devotes herself to nursing the injured in order to wash her hands of her earlier guilt. So why does it feel beyond her reach? Does it depend on Robbie’s survival or is there another way? Can she recreate the world without the Christian God and maintain that there is no higher authority to whom appeal can be made? Will she atone her entire life, and can what has been said and done be ever withdrawn?
Wordsworth Classics edition.
TV series and DVD collections on both old and newly created episodes.
Father Brown, is one of the most lovable and eccentric characters to flourish in the canon of English detective fiction. This quirky Catholic priest is no pushover, he’s served in war and seen life and death on the front line. His wisdom and tenacity in pursuing truth and justice have stood the test of time.
This complete collection contains all the best of the Father Brown stories. G.K. Chesterton has created a witty and deeply compassionate clerical sleuth whose rivals never succeed! Fr Brown’s passion for solving local mysteries via a blend of acumen, intuition and a sympathetic understanding of humanity are always presented in a credible manner. His humour and fondness for cakes, crime and cricket are as popular today.
TV Series and DVD collections on all of the below books.
There are 6 novels in the series:
The Problem of Evil; The Perils of the Night; The Forgiveness of Sins; The Shadow of Death; The Dangers of Temptation and The Persistence of Love.
Sidney Chambers, is the handsome Anglican Vicar of Grantchester in Cambridgeshire. He’s a thirty-two year old bachelor with an unconventional style. His best friend is the most loyal but roguish Inspector Geordie Keating, and while the police can’t just go anywhere, Sidney can. They make the perfect team. Yet, for both professions, when there’s life at stake, you are never off duty.
With plenty of parish gossip, passions and problems to navigate, how does the vicar find time for sleuthing let alone for guiding his flock? And will he find the right wife? The problem of evil and the power of forgiveness sit side by side in the confessional and in the court room. There is always a place for God but sometimes, it can take a very long time to find the right path.
Book clubs are a great way to enjoy a range of genres together and share your thoughts.
Bible Society has written this helpful guide on running a book club here.
You could also set up a Bible Book Club – where you read one book of the Bible at a time, you can find out more here.