10.16.2013

Currently Reading: Ceremony of Innocence

Ceremony of Innocence"It is strange about her bicycle," said Krause. "Dennis said that she took her bicycle when she went out, but we did not find it near the crime scene."

"It was probably stolen," I said, suddenly angry. "Why does it matter? Do you expect to find mysterious gravel in the treads?"

"Perhaps," said Krause. "Frau McClelland, do you have any idea who killed Suzy Davis."

"I don't have the faintest idea."

"But really. Any idea at all?"

"Suzy mixed herself up with some dodgy people. She was an optimist. She trusted people, even enough to hitchhike. Anyone who had any claim to victim status was a potential saint to Suzy. She made friends easily, even with Turkish shopkeepers with hardly any German and less English. She had friends who were PKK supporters, Hamas, Hezbollah."

"We know all that," said Krause. "What I am looking for is a name."

Author: Dorothy Cummings McLean

Synopsis: When Cat McClelland's ex-boyfriend, Dennis, shows up back at her flat, she asks him if he's looking for his mobile phone. To Cat's dismay, however, he's looking for Suzy Davis, who once proposed marriage to him. He's shortly followed by the police, who inform the pair that Suzy Davis' body was just pulled out of the nearby river—and that both Cat and Dennis are suspects.

Cat's narration of her and Dennis' history since their first acquaintance with Suzy contains political intrigue, terrorism, romantic jealousy, clashes of religious morality, and fierce human desperation pitted against conscience. Suzy is dead, but the question of what's left for Cat and Dennis is unresolved until the last pages.

Full disclosure: I read (and on rare occasions, comment upon) Dorothy Cummings McLean's blog "Seraphic Singles", not because I'm particularly in need of the content, but because I enjoy her writing and her perspective. I bought this book of my own free will and received no compensation from either author or publisher for reviewing it.

Notes: Part thriller and part literary novel, Ceremony of Innocence would be a unique and interesting find even in mainstream fiction—but this was published by the Catholic house Ignatius Press. Without meaning disrespect to Ignatius, as I'm not very familiar with their lists, I have to say that it’s incredibly unusual to pick up a novel shelved by religion instead of genre and be able to remark on how well it's written. This one is spectacular.

Over the course of a short and intense mystery plot, McLean carefully examines the subject of innocence. I won’t spoil the point of whether the heroine, Catriona McClelland, is innocent or guilty in regard to Suzy Davis’ death; apart from that matter, however, cynical Cat is anything but an innocent character. By means of flashbacks, Cat’s many failures and cold personality are contrasted—on and off the core theme—with Suzy’s warm naïveté and her passionate idealism. It makes for some interesting questions. McLean easily avoids one of the commonest errors of so-called Christian fiction: she doesn't hand out pat answers.

I found reading this novel a very Catholic experience, which is to say that while living under the same dogmatic umbrella as the protagonist, I related to the idea of innocence from an antipathetic perspective. I strongly sympathized with Suzy’s aforementioned warm naïveté—so much so that I was shocked to discover that she believed things I could not sympathize with at all. I did not sympathize with the (admittedly context-less) Graham Greene quote used as an epigraph. I’m afraid I did sympathize with Dennis’ offscreen Uncle Archbishop Franz a lot. I did not often sympathize with Cat; her sardonic mind, which contained a lot of—not shameless, but perhaps stoical—knowledge of sin, was more than a little uncomfortable to inhabit. She did win my solidarity in one regard, however: I thoroughly understood her insecurity toward her beautiful, much-younger boyfriend.

Ah, yes, Deniz. How to speak of him without spoilers? Well. Another point of sympathy with Cat: he was very lovable.

The mystery holds up well and delivers a couple of solid jolts toward the end. The jumps back and forth in time are occasionally mildly confusing, as almost always happens with time jumps, but the flow of the story is otherwise perfectly readable. The ending manages to be chilling and Catholic all at once, which is impressive.

As an ending, it's hard to classify; it's not exactly happy, nor is it entirely tragic, nor does it seem reasonably described as "bittersweet." Hope and horror exist together, all wrapped up in each other. The horror was of a sort to leave me hungry for more of innocence in the world, but I suspect that's just one of many possible responses.

I read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory partially in preparation for this novel, but, as I discovered via epigraph and acknowledgments, by that motive I should have read The Quiet American. If the Wikipedia plot synopsis can be trusted, this story is in some ways a retelling of that one. But Cat's last paragraph moved me rather powerfully: it contained a direct answer to the question The Power and the Glory's whisky priest leaves his readers with. It’s hopeful, and it’s the answer I believe.

Comparison between new releases and classics is never fair—but McLean, by building her novel off Greene's, invites a certain level of comparison. This book is perhaps short on the really iconic images that Greene was master of, though the Temple Dance Priest scene deserves mention: that’s a beautifully horrific experience for a tradition-loving Catholic to read through. But Ceremony of Innocence isn't short on good writing. It's well phrased, tightly edited, suspenseful, thoughtful, non-didactic, and interesting. It holds its own in both its thriller and literary categories, is beyond outstanding for anything stamped with the religious label, and it suggests that McLean's future work is more than likely to be worth reading.

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