This engaging novel set in the 1980s explores the potential conflict between religious faith and the science of reproductive medicine.
New genetics graduate Jenny finds it difficult to sustain her relationship with Max, a young medic heavily influenced by his Christian fundamentalist family, in particular his domineering pastor father, who disapproves of any attempts to interfere with what he presumes to be God’s will. Add to the mix a rebellious half sister who gives birth to a baby so disabled that it doesn’t survive, and an element of mystery as to what has caused the defects, and you have a cracking page-turner.
With intelligence and compassion, Mari Howard explores the situation from many viewpoints, with an episodic, present-tense narrative seen through the eyes of various characters in turn. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but it includes surprises and twists that I didn’t see coming, and in the second half in particular it reads almost like a thriller.
The sections in which Max clashes with his father, struggling to be free of his influence while remaining a dutiful son, reminded me of Edmund Gosse’s poignant Victorian memoir, Father and Son, and I found the resolution of the conflict towards the end both dramatic and moving.
Woven into the structure is a mystery that drives the story along at a pace, especially in the latter half, to create a real page-turner that I didn’t want to put down, culminating in an intelligent, satisfying and rewarding ending.
The story is told as a series of episodes from different characters’ perspectives, sometimes first person, sometimes third person, and always in the present tense. That ambitious mix kept this reader on her toes, but I congratulate Mari Howard on pulling it off.
My only real niggle with the book was that sometimes the mostly confident and fluent prose turns a bit choppy, with sentence fragments, diary-style, which makes for fast movement and a heady pace. I was occasionally distracted by unconventionally over-condensed phrases e.g. “Why’m I” instead of “Why am I”, but got used to it by the end.
I am glad to know that there is a sequel, because I really want to know what happens next to central characters of Max and Jenny and their colourful families.
Recommended for anyone interested in: genetics, science, the impact of Christian fundamentalism on modern British society, Cambridge, Scotland, and Cornwall, and indeed anyone who fancies a contemporary (well, ok, 1980s) story of a young couple’s relationship in an unusual context.
Find out more about Mari Howard and her books on the Hodge Publishing website. You’ve got to love any publishing company named after Dr Johnson’s “very fine cat”, don’t you think?