First, I feel I should preface this by saying I know Gerard and his wife Chrissy through Bless, the missional charity they run serving churches across Europe. My links with Bless date back almost ten years now, I love the work that they do and feel privileged to have been involved with it. I’m not saying this to name-drop (I know an author!) but so you understand that my review is not unbiased! 😉
I have read most of Gerard’s non-fiction works and greatly enjoyed them (especially Stretch, Stretch was brilliant), so I was really excited when I heard he had written a novel, promptly pre-ordered it, waited impatiently for it to be delivered, and then waited a year and a half to actually read it… such is the state of my to-read list, and for that I can only apologise.
It was definitely worth the wait though! Gerard is a gifted communicator – whether in sermons, blogs, poetry, tweets – and his style translated well into fiction.
The story follows Colom, a teenage boy who has recently developed behavioural problems, and his mother Fiona as she tries to help him. Her husband, David, is a pastor and reluctant to seek help from outside the church, and their home has become a battleground. Fiona seeks the help of Miriam, and old friend, former nun and therapist, who gives Fiona and Colom refuge as they try to work through his problems.
The descriptions were almost tangible, the characters mostly well-rounded, although there were a few gaps in the backstories and I wanted to see more of David and his point of view. The story didn’t develop the way I expected it to, which is usually a good thing (!) and the novel as a whole was really emotionally engaging as the revelations about the family’s past came to light and the relationships shifted and deepened. I liked the continuing motif of the weather and how it paralleled and even prophesied the characters’ emotional states. I also enjoyed the sections of first person narrative, from an unknown narrator who wasn’t revealed until nearly the end – the way these were written they could have been attributed to several characters, and different ones at different points.
My only slight disappointed was the fault of my expectations. After the first couple of chapters I was expecting this to be a book about how a church community reacts and deals with mental illness and the failings of its leaders – it didn’t go that direction, and was a more personal story because of that. The novel was great as it was, and did in some ways deal with the issues – particularly of how to help someone suffering from mental illness – but for me that church community aspect was lacking. I guess I wanted a couple of extra chapters of epilogue to cover the family reunion and the aftermath for their relationships and David’s pastoral ministry.
I still think the way this novel deals with the issue of mental illness is really timely for the church, as it has been a taboo subject for so long. The novel provides an insight for those working with young people, and a challenge for parents who are involved in church leadership on balancing their families and their ministry.