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Evensong
By Gail Godwin
Ballantine. 416 pp. $25
Reviewed by Brigitte Weeks,
editor-in-chief of Guideposts Books and a former editor of Book World. and White in America."

Sunday, March 28, 1999

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Theology and fiction are a tough mixture, but Gail Godwin is a talented and courageous novelist who has sought drama before in the quintessentially middle-class, middle-of-the-road world of the Episcopal Church. Perhaps she knows that 89 percent of all Americans claim to pray, even if most frequently for victory in a sports event.

The Rev. Walter Gower, hero of her 1991 novel, "Father Melancholy's Daughter," was in the habit of commenting that his mission wasn't "to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable." As the title indicates, Gower was prey to depression and, to make matters worse, his wife ran off, leaving him to bring up his young daughter Margaret alone. Time has passed and, in this sequel, Margaret has grown up to become an Episcopal minister herself. She is married to Adrian Bonner, her father's ex-curate and now acting headmaster of Fair Haven School. She ministers to the parish of All Saints, High Balsam, a prosperous resort town in the Great Smokies with its own fair share of the comfortable. Margaret Bonner is no trendy spiritual guru. She's an ordinary, hard working, winningly humble Christian doing what she perceives to be her job.

It is a measure of this novel's achievement that down-to-earth Margaret emerges as a truly sympathetic heroine. Godwin is a terrific storyteller. She creates for her readers, whatever their points of reference, a tangible world full of people we could meet or already have met. Her ministers lay out their vestments carefully before each service so as not to forget a crucial piece. They worry about the thermostat in a drafty church, pray with teenagers over soap opera heroines and wonder from time to time whether God is listening – or even there at all.

The time is December 1999. With the millennium at hand, happenings in High Balsam are far from ordinary. Grace Munger, a self-styled "freelance apostle," shows up determined to celebrate the new century by leading a "March for Jesus" through the town. She has a hard time accepting the reluctance of Margaret and her congregation for anything so, well, showy. An ancient monk with dyed hair and suitcase in hand stumbles from the bus station into her church looking for a bed, and husband Adrian brings home Chase Zorn, a troubled student from his school, who is determined to prove he can disrupt anything, anywhere.

Somehow Pastor Margaret has to hold all this together while wrestling with very everyday sorrows in the lives of her parishioners and in her own marriage. "I believe we need change," she tells the persistent Grace Munger, "but not apocalyptic change. We need the change that comes out of foundation, not fireworks." Godwin's plot certainly delivers change – of many kinds. Questioning and testing fatherhood is a recurring theme in her fiction. Here it follows a winding and emotionally fraught line from God the Father, through Walter Gower ("Father Melancholy"), to Adrian, the fatherless orphan and surrogate father to Chase. But the characters aren't forced into symbolic or schematic postures to showcase Godwin's preoccupations. She creates no cardboard cut-outs to prove a theory. Margaret is much too busy putting her own mother's desertion and death behind her and dealing with the irritations and aggravations of the fathers in her life to take on a symbolic role. The late Walter Gower's "dependable tiny wellspring of lugubrious self-love" has been replaced by her husband's "flinty bedrock of self-hatred," on top of having to deal with Chase stealing the communion wine and getting blind drunk!

What happens to this diverse cast of characters, including assorted parishioners, fellow ministers, needy tourists and aggressive evangelists, makes for intensely involving reading. These people get themselves into myriad difficulties, as does Pastor Margaret, but Godwin's quintessential skill as a novelist is how she leaves them all alone to work out their problems. She allows them to make untidy mistakes and become victims of human stupidity, while at the same time remaining in control of the narrative, keeping them all moving towards pivotal events. This balance between human chaos and an artistic experience is a subtle yet vital ingredient of fine storytelling and worthwhile fiction.

"Evensong" isn't an intellectual exercise, though it includes sermons delivered and faith lost and found. It is an entertaining and fast moving story. Yet there's a point here and it is woven into every sentence of the narrative: Religious beliefs can and do play a meaningful role in ordinary daily lives. Without them, Margaret, Adrian and their companions would make different choices and live different lives. It matters that there's nothing prissy about Margaret and nothing weak-minded about her attempts to see her way clearly in her ministerial duties and personal relationships. Godwin allows the reader to share the thoughts and feelings of Pastor Margaret on a truly intimate level. This sharing ensures that, as the story unfolds, tolerances are acquired and horizons are widened. That's the wonder of fine fiction. It expands the world.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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