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Reviews

The Friday Gospels

Steve Tomkins

RFriday-Gospels.jpg

Jenn Ashworth
Sceptre
324pp

Tales of unusual upbringings generally offer one of two pleasures. Often they introduce us to an unknown world and give us an insight into another kind of life. Or there is the pleasure of recognition and reminiscence, if the unusualness happens to be the same as our own unusualness.

For someone from my religious background, The Friday Gospels slightly disconcertingly does both. The illustrated Sunday school lessons. The dress code. The church socials. The talks about 'Strange New Feelings, and Powerful Urges'. The sanctified vocabulary. The uncomfortable sense of being different - and the insistence that you should wear that difference as a badge of honour. The pressure to share your faith, which fights with the knowledge that no one is ever going to be interested. And the trusting way that children internalize the regime imposed on them. These are beautifully observed in Jenn Ashworth's third novel. Having been administered a strict evangelical upbringing, I immediately felt as if I was comparing notes with a fellow traveller.

And then you trip over a sentence like this: 'the whole reason I was born in the covenant and didn't have to find the gospel later in life and convert, was because I was valiant in the pre-existence'. Same world, different universe.

The Friday Gospels covers an eventful day in the life of a Mormon family in Lancashire. Pauline and Martin and two of their children, Jeannie and Julian, are awaiting the return of the third, Gary, who has been on a two-year mission to Utah - or in other words taking coals to Newcastle. It is 2010, and the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud has delayed his flight repeatedly, but he will be home to a hero's welcome tonight.

To all appearances, this is a happy day in the life of a stable Christian family. And we all know how important appearances are. But as each of the five takes turns as narrator, we glimpse things hidden in the shadows. Gary has to break the news to his family that his mission was a complete failure, a task which the over-optimistic reports he has been sending home will not make any easier. Pauline, who has lived for this night all her life, has some bad news to break to Gary about the girl he is coming home to marry. Martin and Julian are both nursing plans to make radical changes to their lives today, either of which would have huge repercussions for the family. And Jeannie is waiting to share an unhappy secret with her beloved brother, which in the meantime she can barely put into words in her own mind.

The question becomes not so much whether the welcome home dinner will be a success, but rather which one of the five missiles launched at it will sink it first. Or will one of the missiles turn out to be a lifeboat? The answer when it comes - and not just the answer but the whole way we reach it - is wonderfully unpredictable. There is high drama and tragedy - in fact there serious crimes and personal breakdowns - but the foundation in familiar suburban family life is so sound and the tone of that life so well observed that belief is not stretched and every step of the way into the turmoil seems inevitable. And there is a moving touch in the way that at least one character's personal implosion goes virtually unnoticed by the other members of the family.

The five-person narration is a great strength of the novel. If Jeannie's is the most pressingly real voice, each of them is convincing. Of course it gives us a direct insight into the world of these different people, and the vast gaps between their different narrations paints a bleak portrait of a family losing connection. And it allows Ashworth to do the thing I liked best about the novel: one narrator makes a passing observation of very little significance, the next narrator does the same, and only the reader, putting the two together, sees the terrible significance.

At heart, The Friday Gospels is a funny, sad and ultimately compassionate reflection on what a family can do to each of its members. The Church of Latter-day Saints puts a great deal of emphasis on families, both in day-to-day life and in eternity. It has not served this family well though, and the volcano that has kept Gary away from them turns out to be an image for the boiling underground currents, which, suppressed for too long by a rock-solid outward display, can erupt with devastating violence. If there is hope for them - and there is - it is not offered by their religion, with its forms and formulas. It is offered by the way that the force that smashes up our lives also allows us to remake them.

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