I agree with a friend who said to me years ago, that The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge was the most complete and satisfying novel she had ever read. Not necessarily the best, the most literary in accomplishment, or the most imaginatively plotted. But one in which plot and character, historical atmosphere, incident and coincidence eventually weave together in a satisfying and finished story.
There are other novels I am glad I read, because they have left their traces in my own view of the world, myself and the way to live a life. Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe and Patchwork Planet; Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev and The Book of Lights; Carol Shields' Larry's Party , Happenstance and the Stone Diaries; Graham Greene's Burnt Out Case and The Power and the Glory; Julian Barnes' Sense of an Ending, and John Irving's The Prayer of Owen Meany; Morris West's The Navigator and A S Byatt's Possession: Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Bernard Schlink's The Reader; Thomas Kennealy's Schindler's Ark and Vikram Seth's An Equal Music; Bernard McLaverty's Grace Notes and Helen Waddell's Peter Abelard; Salley Vickers' The Other Side of You and Miss Garnett's Angel;Gail Godwins Father Melancholy's Daughter and Evensong.
All of these I remember without getting up from the desk to check; they are books that even if you give them away, they stay with you. The best stories, insinuate themselves into our way of thinking, and dissolve into that inner ethos out of which we live our lives, more or less wisely. Good novels slowly adjust mindset, develop our relational literacy, educate and exercise jaded conscience and moral imagination, and eventually germinate and produce outward fruit from those inner seeds scattered on the varied soil of our minds. And some of that seed falls on good soil.
Salley Vickers latest novel, The Cleaner of Chartres does most of these things. It too is a story that seeps slowly into the clefts and crevices of a mind made arid by too much work stuff, and like the benign drizzle on a Scottish hillside, gently but persistently soaks the soil and encourages renewed growth and recovered vitality. It was a great book to read leading up to Christmas. Agnes, the foundling child, grows up with a legacy of guilt, unhappiness, shattered trust and the kind of brokenness from which a person only recovers through immense courage and the risk of trusting again despite all evidence to the contrary, and through the generous humanity of those whose vocation in life seems to be to believe the best about others and subject gossip and accusation to an hermeneutic of suspicion grounded in goodwill.The human positives of motherhood, love, community and friendship, as often in Vickers' writing, are never allowed to be eclipsed by so much else that seeks to diminish human hope. No need to relate the plot or expound the characters. Just get it and read it.
I am more convinved than ever that pastoral theologians need to read novels with the same theological alertness as the usual practical theology syllabus. Next time I teach Pastoral Theology one or other of Salley Vickers' novels could well be a set text for a critical review and theologically reflective essay.