There are some books which get loads of hype, then you read them and think ‘why? What was all the fuss about?’
Other books slip onto bookshop shelves with a minimum of fanfare and turn out to be gems.
The Godless Boys, by Naomi Wood, falls firmly into the latter category. Set in an imagined alternative Britain in 1986, it is creative, imaginative and very thoughtful.
In this other Britain, the Church runs the country and non-believers have been banished to an island just off the coast. The action takes place on this island, whose inhabitants’ lives are as bleak and barren as the landscape.
It is a love story, a story of hope and despair, a story of ordinary people defeated by loss, and a story about deciding what really matters.
I wrote a few weeks ago about a line which really struck me from the book, in which one of the characters imagines what life must be like back in England, where they have willingly surrendered their “fruitless freedom for some infinitely gentler authority”. I commented that that was a brilliant description of what it means for many people to come to faith in God – it seems like a choice between freedom and control, but the supposed freedom is fruitless (freedom from what? Freedom for what?) while the authority is infinitely gentler than any you could imagine.
While faith isn’t the central focus of the book – in some ways it is just a device to create a closed situation within which to examine human behaviour – there are a few more very sympathetic and touching moments in the story. One character finds God and has a simple but touching experience of God’s grace and forgiveness. He then shares that with a woman who has helped him in a time of need. She describes an action she has taken as a penance for not stepping in to prevent a crime when she could have. “You cannot earn grace by punishing yourself,” her friend tells her. “I’d like that to be true, but I don’t think it is,” she replies.
It takes great skill to present a viewpoint that is opposite to your own with authenticity and empathy. Naomi has done it masterfully. One might almost imagine she knew God as a friend herself, but I know from talking to her that that is not the case.
When I chatted to Jo about the book, she commented that in some ways Naomi has presented faith in a more appealing, more believable, more desirable light than many Christian novelists do. I wonder whether this is partly to do with not having an agenda. People who write what they would describe as ‘Christian novels’ (ie not simply novelists, like Jo, who happen to be Christians), are usually writing them in order to teach a particular principle, to encourage a certain kind of behaviour or to present the Gospel in story form, in the hopes that some may read it and be saved.
There is nothing inherently wrong with that. People learn through stories. Jesus himself often told stories as a way of making a point without losing his audience’s attention. People like stories – they’re more likely to read them than academic treatises on the value and validity of faith. Sometimes, though, the message can trample over the medium – in their desire to make a point, the authors can forget to write a good story with excellent prose and believable characters.
Naomi has constructed a great story, her writing is restrained and elegant, and her characters are believable and, if not exactly likeable, they are certainly people you hope to see succeed.
It’s not a cosy, beach read, but if you’re looking for some good autumn reading, curled up in front of the fire, I highly recommend The Godless Boys, and I eagerly anticipate Naomi’s next book – a biography of the wives of Ernest Hemingway. It promises to be fascinating.
My rating: 5/5