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“And you did get into the coffin?”

“I had no choice. I begged Lestat to let me stay in the closet, but he laughed, astonished.”

Confession time folks. It’s my birthday in ….ooh, six hours. So my wife and I treated ourselves to a nice bottle of Verdelho mid-way through my reading of this book. I am slightly tipsy.

That being said, I think I’m in the perfect position to review this book. It is, after all, a bit dull.

Sorry this review seems to have started early. Let me take a moment to explain the plot.

Louis is the son of  a wealthy French family, with a Louisiana plantation near New Orleans to his name. He feels bowed down by guilt after spurning his younger brother’s religious visions, compelling the family to sell their property in America and return to France to fight the revolutionary scourge of anti-monarchist atheists. When his brother dies mysteriously, Louis refuses to reveal to his mother and sister that madness was the cause of his death. He confesses this to a priest, who blithely dismisses his brother’s religious ecstacy as the result of possession by the devil.

This leaves Louis primed for seduction by the vampire Lestat. Callous, profligate and in need of property, the vampire chooses him in order to gain access to his wealth and status. While Lestat has the appearance of a man of style, he has no head for money. Louis, in effect, once transformed into a vampire becomes manager of his sire’s financial affairs, investing the monies stolen from his victims astutely to provide for them. Immortality has its own challenges, such as a ready access to capital.

Eventually he begins to tire of Lestat’s vain and selfish behaviour, and seeks to go his own way. The two vampires become rivals, with the latter deciding to transform a five-year old girl into a proxy daughter for their undead family.

“I want a child tonight. I am like a mother…I want a child!”

Claudia becomes a companion to Louis, encouraging him to investigate the origins of vampires. They travel to Europe, discovering only haggard  revenants, with the secret of a vampire retaining any semblance of a conscious self seemingly an accident of Lestat’s invention. Until, that is, they come to Paris and find the famous Théâtre des Vampires.

I am sorry to say I did not enjoy the experience of reading this book at all. It is incredibly frustrating. At times Rice‘s plot fascinates – Louis’ ruminations on damnation inform an interesting perspective on religious faith; his relationship with Lestat is reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s tortured association with Henry Irving – only for these passages to give way to interminable ramblings on the pain and suffering of life as a vampire. It is not even internally consistent. Rice establishes that the undead are perfect beings, preserved in time having expelled any human functions upon the moment of conversion. Then there is a passage when Louis is described “defying the sweat which had broken from every pore”.

Of course I have not mentioned the ‘interview’, of the title. Louis, it turns out, has approached a young man, referred to throughout as a ‘boy’, to record his testimony as to his existence as a vampire. With the religious subtext of the book, this interview comes to resemble a secular confession. One of the highpoints of the novel is Louis’ confrontation with a priest. Disillusioned after years of living in fear of damnation, he finds himself standing in a church, gazing at the marbled statues of saints and heavenly powers. Suddenly he realizes the pomp and decadence of the Catholic Church and takes out his frustration on the priest present. It’s a rare moment of passion in amongst the mumbled misery and depression of this novel, a sign of how powerful Rice’s themes could be if applied properly.

As for Lestat, the hero of a number of Rice novels, he appears to be nothing more than a vain, vulgar and impudent child. I have no desire to read another book describing his adventures.

A sad disappointment overall, frustrating and for the most part, quite boring.

I deplore the far too easy analogy between the traditional role of the priest and the current role of the therapist. It can only be made by people who clearly know very little of your profession and less than nothing of mine. You may assuage a troubled mind, but you offer no solace to the soul.

The Catholic Church is facing a losing battle with public opinion these days. The horrific revelations of child sex abuse that have increased in recent years were only made more horrifying with the discovery that the Vatican has made it policy to cover up allegations of abuse in lieu of investigating and prosecuting the crimes. This year Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone went even further and laid the blame on homosexual priests, in effect excusing the Church itself of any responsibility. A long-standing antagonistic relationship exists between the Catholic Church and the gay community, one that has led to the ironical claiming of Christian martyrs as gay icons, such as Saint Sebastian. Even the masochistic imagery of the Passion has itself become confused by sexual ambiguity and it is this blurred line between martyrdom and repressed sexuality that author Michael Arditti explores with his first novel.

Each chapter of The Celibate opens with a continuing narration by an erudite tour guide to a group of astonished tourists. We then flit from, in the first half of the novel, a discussion of the Whitechapel murders by the figure popularly known as Jack The Ripper, to a second narration, that of a troubled young man who has been ordered to undergo therapy. Slowly it becomes clear that the tour guide and the young man, an ordinand in the Anglo-Catholic Church, are one and the same. The therapy sessions are entirely one-sided, with the trainee priest’s life story unfolding almost unprompted, as to his increasing frustration, the therapist never speaks.

He describes how his calling was quite a unique one. As the son of an English Jew it seemed odd to many that he would choose to become a priest, but he feels compelled to study the Catholic faith and make it his own. At the seminary he befriends – and from the beginning we are given to understand was betrayed by – another student named Jonathan, who is fiercely passionate and politically active. The narrator at one point mentions that his one-time friend expounded from the pulpit that the Church’s ban of homosexuality is actually a distraction from the breaking of the more serious taboo of incest in the Bible by figures such as Noah and Lot.

The sudden seizure upon the altar which leads to the narrator’s suspension from his studies results in him working alongside more secular charities for a time. While there he discovers something of his old missionary zeal in trying to help London rent boys. He compares himself to William Gladstone, which in turn reflects the narration by his future self of the attitude towards prostitutes held by the Victorian era. Slowly his religious resolve begins to weaken and he discovers that he has been hiding his true nature from himself, something that the rent boys and pimps he meets are quick to guess at. Can someone believe in a Christian god represented on this Earth by a homophobic church and be gay at the same time?

This book is divided into two sections, each bookended with a different opening tour by our nameless guide. The first compares the hypocrisy of the Victorian era with its condemnation of ‘fallen women’, (allowing for a double-victimisation at the hands of the Whitechapel murderer), to the rampant homophobia of the Church and its refusal of mercy to homosexuals. The second examines the parallels between the plague of 1665 and the present-day AIDS epidemic, with bigotry and intolerance increasing the risk to sufferers of both.

As Arditti has chosen the device of having this character engage in ongoing monologues, via his tour guide patter and therapist confessional, we are privy only to his thoughts throughout. Scholarly discussions of the history of Christianity meet a reserved naivety of a man hiding from himself. As such the reader comes to know this nameless protagonist better than he knows himself – and by extension, we come to understand the dilemma of many priests who are called to betray themselves.

This is a stunning, yet disturbing debut novel. Sex and spirituality are twinned, the bigotry of the Thatcherite era equated with Victorian hypocrisy. A powerfully moving book.

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