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The Godless Boys

Johanna Derry

Naomi Wood
Picador, 320pp

Religion often has a polarising effect on people and on societies, and in her debut novel The Godless Boys, Naomi Wood exploits this to explore how faith and the absence of faith both have in equal measure the capacity to liberate and to enslave.

The story takes place on a small island off the coast of an alternative Britain, where the Church is the State and holds complete power over the country. The Island is a weather-beaten and exposed place, battered by Arctic winds in the middle of the North Sea. It's a place of exile, where members of the Secular Movement, those who dared to question the Church's authority or right to compel them to believe in God, were banished.

Some of the inhabitants are there because they demonstrated their atheism with violent acts of terrorism, burning churches in a way that feels reminiscent of 16th- and 17th-century history. Others are there because they vocalised their doubts or because they saw it as a place to escape to, a place where a new religion-free model of society could be built and new beginnings made. Finally, there are those who were born on the Island, and who grow up resentful of the perceived soft lives of those who seek the ease and comfort of faith in God and the benefits of living on the mainland. These last are the Godless Boys to which the novel's title refers, the Malades, a band of skinny youths who begin the novel as mischievous teenagers, and become radicalised into a thuggish, skinheaded gang who terrorise the adults they live among.

Into their lives falls the pale, red-haired Sarah, a stowaway from Britain searching for her atheist mother, whom she assumes must be living on the Island, deported there when she was a small child. Her arrival divides the gang, forcing them to question whether their idea of the old country, and the faith it represents, is true. Their individual conclusions drive some of them to take even more extreme measures, with tragic consequences.

Wood's novel is ambitious, exploring the nature of fundamentalism, how it develops and how it is softened, and with it in turn the shifting nature of faith, how it emerges from nothing, evolves or dies. Through the extremes of religion versus atheism, she demonstrates the fickle nature of belief, showing how what can prompt faith in one, can elicit doubt in another. For example, the burned out Island church adds steel to the secular cause of the Malades deputy leader Jakob Lawrence, but becomes the scene of a miraculous conversion experience for Islander John Verger, who set the church alight on his arrival. He encounters the presence of Christ in its burnt out shell and 'The old man, now, felt enormously free; the guilt had left him.'

This tension between responses is where Wood places the source of conflict between secular and religious viewpoints in her story. It's not the adamant stance of someone who is secure in their beliefs that is the root of trouble, but rather those who stubbornly refuse to admit to doubt or to errors of judgement.
She picks up the idea of secret regret in the frustrated romance between the fishmonger Arthur Stanksy and Eliza Michalka, a baker forced into prostitution after falling on hard times. Both bound up by their own sense of shame, condemnation and embarrassment, their story plays itself out as a bondage of unspoken errors, and a desperate need to escape the closeness, speculation and forced intimacies of Island life.

Maybe I'm a sucker for romance, but I found their story more compelling than that of Sarah's quest to find her mother or the exploits of the Malades gang, more fully demonstrating how humans can be imprisoned by ideologies and shame, as much as they can be by physical obstacles. Throughout the story these ideas of freedom and imprisonment shine through. The Island and Britain switch throughout the story as motifs of freedom and oppression, physically linked together by a single small provisions boat pointedly named The Saviour. Unfortunately it was small things like the name of the boat that slightly let the story down for me, sticking out like luminous Golf Sale signs in the prose. Another example is the Sunday Agreement, the peace accord that allows for the release of prisoners of the Secular Movement, a not-so-veiled reference to the Northern Irish peace process. These small things jar, and rather spoil the otherwise carefully balanced fiction in which Wood explores her themes. It's as if she doesn't entirely trust her audience to draw the conclusions or ask the questions she wants to elicit from them, and that she has allowed her own insecurities as an author to win over the quality of her writing.
Otherwise, she successfully deals with the sacred/secular divide, an ambitious and culturally loaded starting point for a story, and draws out the many grey hues between the black and white views of fundamentalist believers and non-believers.

For all of this, The Godless Boys is also a really good read, a page-turner, that's not so light as to be forgettable, but not so arduous as to be a chore. Her description of the winter-battered Island coastline is very atmospheric, temporarily transporting me away from the brief heat of this year's early summer into a cold, damp place in my imagination and giving me sudden cravings for hot chocolate and warm fires. There's enough ambiguity in the characterisation to keep you wondering, and her story grants enough grace to the characters to grow and change their minds, to discover their real hopes and to attempt to reconcile those with the people they are perceived to be.

Johanna Derry

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