I guess I need to say right at the start of this blog that I absolutely LOVE this book! This isn't going to be one of those cryptic book reviews where you don't know until the last sentence whether the reviewer loved or hated the book. I think this is a fantastic book - not to everyone's tastes, I imagine, but then what book is?
I also probably need to say, in the interests of transparency, that Catherine Fox is a friend. Given how funny and witty and naughty she is in real life, it's no surprise that her books are all of those things too. However, wonderful, loyal friend as I of course am, I'm not so nice that I would write a glowing review of a book I didn't like. (And anyway, I've been a fan of her writing for longer than I've been her friend!).
I think as a reader that one of the things you most want from a novel is characters who you really care about. Acts and Omissions delivers many such characters. They're a joy, every one of them, with their eccentricities and egos, their humour and humanity, their foibles and frailties. Matt, Freddie, Wendy, Jane, Paul, Bob, Susanna, Martin, Dominic... these people have become totally real to me! I'm not sure I can think of many other novels I've read where I have genuinely cared this much about what happens to the characters!
The way in which the book was first written probably helped to create this level of character-empathy. Catherine blogged a chapter a week for a whole year, meaning the reader was often left with a dramatic cliffhanger, and there was nothing to be done except wait a week to see what would happen next.
For me the genius of this book (and all of Catherine's writing) is the way she brings up big, important issues in an easy, light-hearted way, that means you suddenly move from chuckling about something daft that one of the characters has said or done, to finding yourself thwacked between the eyes by something incredibly moving and profound.
I have spent the whole of my life worshipping within the Church of England, and the past 9 years working within it. I have a massive amount of affection for it, but am also very well aware of its peculiarities! I love that this book pokes gentle fun at the CofE, challenges it where it deserves to be challenged, but does so at all times with genuine warmth and fondness, and never with negativity and criticism.
This book is also far from afraid to tackle the Big Issues. It does so cleverly, because first of all it has made you genuinely love and care about the people involved. This means that you can't just dismiss the things you don't like - which is what, in real life, it's all too easy to do.
There are lots of moments in this book where I've wished that one of the characters hadn't done the thing they've just done. There were times on a Sunday night as I read the blog when I yelled "noooooooo" at the computer. I disagree, morally and theologically, with some of the things which happen in the book. It would be pretty surprising if I didn't, really - that's novels, and indeed human life, for you. There were lots of moments when I wished that a different choice had been made, or a different outcome reached. That doesn't mean, however, that I can't enjoy and appreciate the book for what it is.
The brilliant thing that it does is that it forces you to consider these issues as they affect 'real people' (please don't tell me they aren't real!!) who you've grown to love and care for. In church life it's all too easy to retreat behind our theological labels, and to stay within groups of people who think the same way as we do, and to assume that we know what 'we' and what 'they' think and believe. This book doesn't allow us to do that - it challenges us in ways which can only be helpful. Not all angles and beliefs are equally represented, however, and there's a definite liberal bias in the theology of most of the main characters that is different from my own theology, and therefore presented me with a not-always-comfortable challenge. I might also have liked one or two more 'single, whole and content' characters (trust me to say that!), but then they probably don't make for such interesting stories...
In many ways the book is 'about' the homosexuality/equal marriage debate which is so topical in the CofE at the moment, but it's also about more than that. It's about how huge institutions care for (or don't!) the people who work for them. It's about love and relationships and how frail and fragile they are, but how worth fighting for. It's about the Christian journey, and the ups and downs of an ordinary bunch of people trying to walk it. It's about grace and forgiveness and joy and life and laughter. It is not, however, for the faint-hearted or the easily offended...!
Even though I'd read the book faithfully each week as it was blogged, I still couldn't wait to read it again when it was published. I read much of it in one go on the train home from London and I laughed and cried for most of the journey!
This is a fabulous book, incredibly well written and achingly funny. Read it quickly (it's just out, published by SPCK), and then go to www.unseenthingsabove.blogspot.co.uk to start reading the sequel, also being blogged a chapter a week.