Sally Thomas’ Works of Mercy is a beautiful, quiet novel in which style, tone and content all go hand in hand. The author’s understated, personal, poetic style reminded me of the novels of Susan Hill or Barbara Pym—both novelists who live in the world of women’s emotions without being indulgent, sentimental, or quaint.
My impatience with contemporary Christian literature is something I am ashamed of. I feel like I should Have fun Read fiction—especially if it’s based on faith. But when the latest first novel by an aspiring Catholic writer peeks out of the cover, I flinch rather than lunge.
Nonetheless, over the past few months I’ve immersed myself in the comic-like, action-packed world of Declan Finn’s heroic New York police officer, Saint Tommy, and the gritty world of Joshua Hren’s Blake Yourrick. There was an allegorical walk in the woods by Michael Norton and Michael Gieres justice on the mountain shows two devout police officers who get involved with criminals in the wilderness.
From this selection (and many others) I can report that there seems to be a growing number of emerging authors writing novels of varying quality and in a range of genres – from horror and fantasy to sci-fi, action-adventure and children’s fantasy , and more. If this is true of explicitly Catholic writers, the wave of non-Catholic Christian fiction writers is even larger. Whether the quantity corresponds to the quality will be seen as the products are tested over time.
One of the conflicts within fiction is that between literature and entertainment. Some writers simply aim to tell a compelling thread to create a real page turner. They don’t aim to produce the next one Brideshead revisited. Sebastian Flyte is not required. Father Brown will do it.
Others, it seems to me, are consciously striving for a more elevated style. Driven by larger issues and aware of the immortals – Dostoyevsky, O’Connor, Greene, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien or Bernanos – they hope to follow in their footsteps. All too often the result is lame imitation, the themes present as a slip, the allegorically named characters entangled in invented plots and shallow “conflicts” that touch neither heart nor mind.
With these reviews in mind, I wrote to Sally Thomas after requesting a review copy of her debut novel works of mercy, say I would be honest. She nodded in agreement.
The first page was not promising. Kirsty Sain is the charwoman at the vicarage in the town of Annesdale, North Carolina, and when she used the words “ruthless” and “erased,” I groaned and muttered to myself, “Not good. Cleaners in North Carolina don’t use words like ‘unruly’ and ‘wiped out’.”
But then I found out that Kirsty was a Scottish girl from Shetland, of all people, studying English literature at Oxford, marrying a Yankee who had washed up in Britain, and being transported to his home in North Carolina. OK, now it started to make sense. After spending twenty-five years in the wetlands myself before being transplanted to the Carolinas, I became interested.
Kirsty is a lonely widow in her 60s who carries a burden of wounds from a life of small mistakes. Their life in the church is simple, quiet, and humble. Despite her love of privacy and tending to tend to her wounds alone, she cares for the shy young priest and gets involved with the Malkin family – a boisterous, mismatched New Jersey couple with dozens of children. Howie is Jewish and Janet is a lovely slut. Kirsty navigates her way through digging into the Malkins’ lives and eventually becomes a trusted friend and supporter when tragedy strikes her home.
works of mercy is a beautiful, quiet novel in which style, tone and content all go hand in hand. Ms. Thomas’s understated, personal, poetic style reminded me of the novels of Susan Hill or Barbara Pym—both novelists who live in the world of women’s emotions without being indulgent, sentimental, or flippant.
Sally Thomas skillfully manages to make us care about her heroine without describing her feelings or embarrassing us with obvious issues. Kirsty expresses her feelings about her Catholic faith, her regrets at past misdeeds, and her current grief with a restrained stoicism mixed with a poetic vision perfectly suited to her Gaelic, windswept Scottish island roots. In the depths of the story, I began to see Sally Thomas’ true insidiousness. She’s a smart writer, and what she presents is a portrait of a really good—or even holy—person.
Her heroine is down to earth and the salt of the earth in the best sense of the word. It will be easy for the creative writer to create a villain, and likable heroes aren’t much more difficult, but creating a truly humble and good character without slipping into conventional piety or superficial sentimentality is a challenge.
In the end I was really charmed by Kirsty Sain and figured that if she were my parishioner, she would be the guy I would come to on those rainy winter afternoons for a cup of tea, a piece of shortbread, and maybe even a… small drama.
works of mercy is not the kind of novel I would pull off the shelf, but not only am I glad I read it, I’m looking forward to Frau Thomas’ next novel. Did the author want to write a work of solid literary merit, or did she simply want to write a compelling, believable, and moving story of grace at work in ordinary life? Whatever her intentions, I believe she has achieved both.
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