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There was one additional thing I can hardly bring myself to mention: an expectancy. I sensed it, felt it hovering lightly in the air. The house was awaiting its new owners, impatient for its life’s work and purpose to begin. It was almost as if it was – repudiating me, but that is too strong.

Yet I was aware that a distance had opened up between us. The intimacy of our relationship, the three-way interplay of myself, Teddy, house – it was no longer there. And more than that, it was as if it had never been. It had blown away, just like my money. Vanished without a trace, and from this day forward I could be nothing but a casual visitor.

I felt I was trespassing in my own house.

I am becoming wary of reading any further books featuring teachers. My dad was a teacher and I have worked with Education departments in the time, so I have a lot of empathy for the profession. Yet every book I read involving a teacher these days seems to involve child abuse of  one form or another. Not comfortable reading, certainly not something I would choose to read. So it would take an extra special author to attract me to this kind of story.

Luckily Virginia Duigan is just such an author.

Thea is a retired school principal who has enjoyed her lonesome existence in the Blue Mountains accompanied only by her dog Teddy. Unfortunately due to a slight hiccup in her finances – and the complete loss of her savings – she has been forced to sell her dream home. The couple who buy the property, Frank and Ellice, are trendy hipster who seem inoffensive enough at first, but Thea cannot help but feel resentful as she is forced to retreat to the old hut she owns on a neighbouring plot.

Then she meets the couple’s adopted child Kim. The young girl, abandoned by Frank’s absent brother, instantly bond with Teddy much to Thea’s initial annoyance. However, as time she passes she discovers a kindred spirit in the twelve-year-old, a girl who is as out of time as Thea, eagerly devouring old books and adopting the older woman’s speech patterns.

During this period of upheaval in her life, Thea has also been attending a series of writing classes. Though she is fond of quirky rhymes, she feels insecure about her own literary talents. As the book progresses it becomes clear that her classes are also intended to facilitate a long-overdue catharsis, concerned with a teaching colleague from years before named Matthew. Thea still carries a massive burden of guilt related to the dishonourable end to her teaching career. This influences her growing sense of responsibility for Kim, as well as her concerns over Ellice and Frank’s parenting skills.

Duigan captures Thea’s voice brilliantly, clinging to very proper phrasing and anachronistic expressions, her bitterness the preservative that keeps her out of time. In effect her slow thaw due to Kim, her comparing of Frank to the mysterious Matthew from years ago, and the increasing use of personal insights in her writing, are all signs that Thea is slowly but surely building up to a single, climactic act.

The Precipice is a strongly observed and insightful novel, from this very gifted author.

With thanks to Random House for this review copy.

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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