Archive for the ‘moore brian’ Category

It’s been a while since I last read a Moore.  3 and a bit years have whizzed by,  just like that.  With Bloomsbury republishing 5 of his novels in February, and my book group set to discuss all 5 next Monday, it is time to restart my completist read project.

I thought I’d start with the one I didn’t want to read.  Bite the bullet. Put the one with the reputation behind me.  You know the one about the adulterous wife with the pornographic sex scenes (that should send post-review sales sky-rocketing).  But before you all get too excited, there’s only about a dozen pages.  Just saying.  Don’t want to mislead anyone.   A dozen pages which according to received wisdom, prevented the novel from winning the 1976 Booker Prize.  One of the judges vetoed it, because of the explicit sexual content.  Quite right, too.

Shame because  a) the 1976 winning novel, David Storey’s Saville  has sunk into obscurity and b) the other 276 pages of Moore’s novel are rather good.

The events of the novel are very concentrated, taking just a few weeks to turn the lives of Sheila and her family completely upside down.  It all begins when Sheila flies to Paris on holiday and her husband doesn’t. He’s a doctor in Belfast with a military contract.  Set during the Troubles, he’s busy.  Too busy to go on holiday with his wife, who doesn’t realise how dissatisfied she is until she has plenty of time to chew the cud.  Then she meets Tom, a young American who is besotted with her on sight.   He talks to her about art, theatre and (middle-aged bookworms, beware!) literature, follows her from Paris to the South of France and before you know it, we’ve reached the first of the pornographic paragraphs.

OK, I’ll relent a little.  I understand why Moore included such graphic action.  Sheila has lost faith in her family, in her god and seeks to abandon herself in lust, in sex.  Complete, utter, rapturous abandonment.  I don’t suppose that can be portrayed with a discrete ellipsis …

Anyway, things start to get complicated when lust turns to love and Sheila’s family start the fight to keep their wife, mother, sister.

Although the novel is told exclusively in third-person, viewpoints are switched and so Moore provides insight into more than one emotional outlook and this is what lifts the novel from being another tawdry tale of extra-marital sex.  The pyschological portraits are quite fascinating:  Sheila’s boorish husband, her heartbroken adolescent son, her confused brother. Sheila’s actions are understandable – the portrait Moore paints of the neglected wife stuck in the middle of the Troubles (and the British weather) a sympathetic one, although I was disturbed by the casual abandonment of her son.  And I did not buy into the behaviour of her husband when he tracked her down in Paris.  A boor he may be, but not a brute.

As for that final, final twist ….. very mysterious.

Colm Toibin’s essay about Brian Moore, published in New Ways to Kill Your Mother, contains the following critique:

From the beginning of Moore’s career a problem existed that came increasingly to damage his novels – a willingness to work in broad strokes … in The Doctor’s Wife, the social detail, the dialogue and even the characters are brisk, with a strange lack of nuance and shadow.  Sheila, the doctor’s wife, has various conversations with her husband that read like early, hastily written drafts.  Her American lover has no presence in the novel and the two observers of the scene in the South of France are pure fictional contrivances.

I must say that I agree whole-heartedly with the comment about the lover.  Not so sure about the rest.  Besides would adding the nuance and shadow have fattened the novel making it very un-Moore like? This might also have destroyed some of the novel’s verisimilitude.   Moore, like McEwan today, chose to concentrate on a moment of crisis.  I haven’t found much nuance and shadow in real human beings at such moments.  What do other Moorites think?

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It’s hard to believe but it’s just a few months short of 3 years since I read Brian Moore’s The Emperor of Ice Cream.  I took a strong dislike to the adolescent male lead. Although the book was a 4-star read, my project to read all of Brian Moore’s novels stalled.  Even so cries of  delight were heard chez Lizzy when I caught sight of page 43 in Bloomsbury’s 2012 spring catalogue and discovered that Bloomsbury have republished 5 Moore novels since November.  Ever curious, I contacted Trâm-Anh Doan, Bloomsbury’s paperback editor, who kindly answered my questions.

Q: What was the impetus that led to Bloomsbury republishing this set?

A: Brian Moore has long been a cherished writer on Bloomsbury’s list. We first published No Other Life in 1993, followed two years later by The Statement,which went on to become a classic and, later, a film starring Michael Caine in 2003. Up until recently, however, we had never published his books in paperback, and when the opportunity arose for us to do so, we leapt at the chance to give a new lease of life to these books in both print and digital formats.

Q: Why these 5?

A: We had originally published No Other Life, The Statement and The Magician’s Wife as hardbacks in the 90s so it made perfect sense to revive them with new paperback and eBook editions. Then, much to our delight, the agent also told us that we could acquire the rights for I Am Mary Dunne and The Doctor’s Wife – the latter of which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1976. These five titles demonstrate the breadth of Brian Moore’s writing: he could write tightly-written thrillers likeThe Statement as well as he could write nuanced, subtle stories of female desire, as he did in I Am Mary Dunne.

Q: What considerations went into the new branding?

A: We loved the black and white photographic approach that Harper Collins used for their most recent edition ofThe Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and wanted to use that as a starting point for our designs. I briefed our designer, Greg Heinimann, to look for moody photographs that captured the atmosphere of particular scenes in each book, and he then applied a monochrome colour-wash to create a unified series look. We also needed a classy, authoritative typeface that would work well for a thriller like The Statement and for a love story like The Doctor’s Wife.

I have 4 of the 5 in hand …

and very handsome they are in their new livery.  To celebrate the publication of the final volume in the set, The Magician’s Wife,  Bloomsbury are sponsoring a blog giveaway of two Moore(ish) thrillers!

The Statement was the first Moore I read.  Pre-blog unfortunately so no review but it was the novel that inspired the goal of reading everything Moore read.  Here’s the book blurb:

Condemned to death in absentia for crimes against humanity, Pierre Brossard has lived in the shadows for more than forty years.  Now, at last, his past is threatening to catch up with him.  A new breed of government officials is determined to break decades of silence and expose the crimes of Vichy.  nder the harsh glare of the Provencal sun, Brossard is forced to abandon the monastery where he has been hiding and turn to old friends for support – but can he really outrun his past?

Based on the real-life case of Paul Touvier, a French war criminal long protected by the Church and government officials, The Statement combines profound moral questions with flawless plotting and breathless suspense.

I will read No Other Life sometime soon.  Perhaps you’d like to readalong? From the back of the book:

When Father Paul Michel, a missionary on the poor Caribbean island of Ganae, rescues a young boy from abject poverty, he unwittingly sets him on the road towards a dramatic and dangerous future.  For Jeannot grows up to become a visionary priest and, later, the first democratically elected leader in a country previously accustomed to dictatorships.  As Jeannot rises in power and makes deadly enemies of the corrupt army, the mulatto elite, drug dealers and the Catholic Church, Father Michel reluctantly finds himself drawn into a drama of faith and politics.

Fans of Grahame Greene will love these and I have 3 sets of both novels to giveaway. Simply leave a comment telling me why you’d like to read these and whether you’d be available for a readalong of No Other Life in early March.  (Though that is not a precondition of entry.)  The competition is open internationally and I will choose the lucky winners sometime on Sunday 5th February.

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This talk of lemon polenta cake and cream teas is addictive and reminds me that I never reviewed the book I read for dessert as part of the Well-Seasoned challenge. Let’s put that right now.

It is now two months since I read the book and the reason why this review is so delayed is that I’m disappointed that it’s not joining the list of my  reads. On the back of the review available on TheMooreTheMerrier I starting reading the latest in my Mooreathon with the highest of expectations, completely and utterly expecting myself to be blown away. It didn’t happen, which is not to say that THe Emperor of Ice Cream isn’t an excellent read. I think I was expecting something to grab me in the same way as “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” did.  I don’t currently have much empathy with adolescent male leads – and the stupidity of this one made my blood boil in places.  (Interesting that this novel is the most autobiographical of Moore’s output – suggesting that while I admire the author, I wouldn’t have got on with the man?)  But while I was alienated from the personal drama, I was fascinated by the historical, completely amazed at the mindset that couldn’t wait for the second world war to hit Belfast. And didn’t it just, when the Luftwaffe got its sights in! I realise the foregoing sounds rather ambivalent but let me stress that The Emperor of Ice-Cream is still a   read and far superior to much contemporary fiction. I agree with John Self that it is a travesty that it is out of print.   Here’s hoping that Faber will find it and republish ..

Sometimes one pudding is not enough and because this is a virtual feast, indulging in a second won’t hurt the waistline. 

Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was a prizewinner before it was even published – the first chapter winning the CWA debut dagger in 2007.  Since then that chapter has developed into a fine first novel, the start of what will be a 3-part series of Flavia de Luce detective novels.  Flavia de Luce, an 11-year old,  the youngest, and much put upon, daughter of 3.  Forced to withdraw from the malevolence of her elder sisters, she has esconced herself in the long abandoned Victorian chemical laboratory at the top of the family mansion. .  She’s a precocious clever-clogs, meddling in things she shouldn’t and tenacious in all she does, whether it be wreaking revenge on her  “ugly” sisters or seeking to exonerate her father from a false charge of murder.  The setting in 1950 lends much charm.  The comic timing too is masterful in places – it’s unsophisticated and clean and made me laugh out loud more than once.  You need to be accepting of Flavia’s cleverness  and if you do, you’ll learn much about stamp-collecting, magical illusions and chemistry.  Flavia does a rather fine line in poison ….. 


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Brian Moore lost his Catholic faith as a young man and proceeded to carve a literary career out of it.  In the 1950’s he wrote The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), in the 1980’s Black Robe (1985).  In between there was Catholics (1972). 

With only 102 pages, Catholics is very much a novella, easily read in one sitting.  In 1972, however, it was judged a novel and was duly awarded the W H Smith Novel of the Year. It is certainly as intense as a novel.  There is so much distilled into its 102 pages –   many a modern author would have stretched it to 250+.

Catholics is a parable centring around issues of dogma, doctrine, and religious practice.   Using the backdrop of Vatican II (1965), Moore projects a program of reform continuing into the near future.  His Catholics are coming to terms with the outcomes of Vatican IV – a council which has capitulated to the power of secularism.  The Church is negotiating a merger with Buddhism.  Mass is no longer a mystery, it has been relegated to mere symbolic ritual.

The monks at Muck Abbey, however, refuse to part with the traditional faith.  They continue to practice the rosary, private confession and even hold the Latin mass.  Thousands flock weekly to a mass held in the open.  Such is its popularity that it is now televised and a media circus has ensued.   This, in turn, has brought the abbey to the notice of the higher Church authorities, who send their envoy, James Kinsella, to turn them away from their heresy and into the contemporary Church.

Surprisingly, it is the abbot of Muck, Thomas, who takes the role of the faithless one.  He has spent years running the abbey purely as an enterprise, going through the motions of piety and devotion without the benefit of a sincere faith. It is his lack of conviction that has led, ironically, to the abbey becoming the stalwart defender of the traditional. 

I am not a holy man, but, maybe because I am not, I felt I had no right to interfere.  I thought it was my duty, not to disturb the faith they have.

Kinsella’s arrival upsets the abbot’s internal compromise and Thomas, the man without any real conviction, must choose between Kinsella’s passionate secularism or the monks’ passionate traditionalism.

Thomas’s difficulty is explored with skill.  His decision is of great significance, not only for himself, but for his small community of devoted monks.  An abbey that is depicted, even by Moore’s lapsed-Catholic pen, with skill, respect and sympathy.  Its centuries of history resonating through its walls.  The simplicity of the lifestyle and sincerity of the devotion (Thomas very much the exception at the Abbey) rendering Kinsella, shallow, crass and opportunistic by comparision.

Dramatic tension aplenty in the ensuing theological vssecular head-to-heads between Thomas and Kinsella that necessarily fill the majority of the pages.  Layer upon layer of irony as the man with no faith defends traditional dogma against the secular man from Rome.  A complicated little book, this Catholics.  Do not be fooled by its meagre page count.


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James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1975

Governor General’s Award for Fiction (English) 1975

 At last – a Brian Moore novel that was the bride, not the bridesmaid.  Though I must say I am somewhat surprised that it was The Great Victorian Collection that bagged the awards.  How so?

Take the premise:  “When Anthony Maloney woke up one day in Carmel, USA, he glanced out of his hotel window, and noted, with surprise, that his dream of the night before had come true.  A vast open-air market stetched in front of him, filled with the most exquisite and priceless collection of Victorian objects.”    What follows transforms the life of Anthony Maloney, an ordinary 29-year old young man, assistant professor of history at McGill University in Montreal, making his first trip to the West Coast.  He can’t believe his luck!  Dreams come true after all!  However as The Great Victorian Collection is subjected to the scrutiny of the press, antiquarian experts, a burgeoning tourist industry and even a police investigation, the dream rapidly transforms into nightmarish reality.

Of course, the premise is absurd.  This novel is an “impossible premise treated realistically”.  Even so, Moore had his struggles – well, what atheist wouldn’t when dealing with a) the supernatural or b) a secular miracle? According to Patricia Craig in her biography of Moore, the novel was written and revised, revised again and again as new ways forward presented themselves, and then ultimately rewritten following advice from an editor that “the fantasy element was satisfactory but it fell a bit flat when it came to characterisation”.  Now I’m only guessing here, but may I suggest that Moore added a messy marriage break-up and a messy romance into the mix following this criticism – and believe me they are messy.  However, they don’t really satisfy and have little to no relevance to the main plot.

OK – so why the awards?  Others have suggested that this is Moore’s Borgesian novel.  Never read Borges so I can’t confirm.  Kafka’s Metamorphosis I have read and Moore’s novel is of the same mould – a bit more humorous perhaps.

But I’m not the greatest fan of absurdist literature – Borgesian (I presume) or Kafkaesque doesn’t float my boat.  But allegory does and it’s on this level that The Great Victorian Collection lifted itself for me.  A few sample quotes:

he was not dreaming; he had really created these things and had made them visible for others to see and admire.

But how could he go on living with a set of statues?  A man must live with a real woman .  How could anyone spend his life wandering up and down the aisles of a museum, night after night dreaming the same dream?  After six months, after a year, he would no longer be able to look at all this.  He would grow to hate it.

There was no longer any real life for him – no life at all apart from the Collection.

Think author, think of letting your novel out into the world, think death of the author.  As an allegory, The Great Victorian Collection really, really works.  But the reader really, really has to work to see the point.  And that’s possibly why, awards notwithstanding, The Great Victorian Collection, is currently out-of-print.

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Memento ergo sum – I remember, therefore I am.  A memory from a Latin class flags up the theme of Moore’s 6th novel and  Mary Lavery’s identity crisis becomes explicit when she forgets her name in the hairdresser’s.  She’s 32,  already into her third marriage.  She has not been Mary Dunne since she was 20.  But in the twelve years since, she’s been Mary Phelan, Bell and now Lavery.  No wonder the girl is confused!

And so Mary remembers her life. There’s not much pre-marriage detail. And that’s her problem.  She sees herself only in relation to the men in her life and when she’s dissatisfied, particularly between the sheets, she’s quick to find herself another.  Her beauty engenders no shortage of those willing to sacrifice themselves in the quest for her happiness.  Both sexes too! The end result, though,  is three overlapping relationships with no time taken in between to find herself.  She cannot know who she is but subconsciously she has a terrible guilt complex about her second husband.

In the present, Mary experiences a really, really bad day; one designed to highlight her inadequacies and uncover the evidence of her hard-heartedness and selfishness. Jittery and shaking from PMT, she encounters three people who are not what they claim to be: a bogus sub-tenant, a friend who is anything but and a man, who claims to be in love with her but wishes to hold her to account for leading him on (in the distant past).  It’s very unnerving and there’s a varied emotional landscape for Mary and the reader to travel. Pathos for the lonely old man, schadenfreude at the realistic sparring and bitchiness of the dialogue between the two women, and incredulity during the dinner with her second husband’s pal.  Moore making an uncharacteristic faux pas here.  No man would demean himself so.

The tones of each marriage are as different as those of the three encounters; Mary finding in her third husband,  a paragon of virtue, her “saviour”, her “rock” – her words, not mine.  The woman has no identity without a man and, thus, she is without true female friendship.  Not my kind of female at all. And while I’m sitting in judgment, let me just say that she has a lot to feel guilty about with regard to her second husband!

Antipathy aside, Moore has created a living breathing (anti-)heroine in Mary (ex-)Dunne.  Written in a strongly-paced first person narrative, her voice is consistent and authentically female.  I recognised her mad twin – the externalisation of her PMT.  I do have issues with the secondary characters though – some are assigned bit roles with only sketchy characterisation.  And the novel would have been stronger without the melodrama of the last 30 pages. 

Even so the novel is very readable and easily digested in two or three sittings.  While it’s still finer than much modern fiction, I doubt I’ll revisit it. Mary and I are not destined to be friends.


(Originally posted on themoorethemerrier)

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As an expatriate of long standing Brian Moore felt that younger authors with in-situ experience would probably write about the troubles in Northern Ireland in a more meaningful way than he. Then he was caught in a bomb scare and found himself evacuated from a hotel with a coach-load of French tourists   ….. The next thing said tourists find themselves in the midst of a similar situation within his 1990 novel,  Lies of Silence.

Imagine yourself plumetted into the following nightmare scenario: your wife is held hostage while you are forced to drive a bomb in your car to your place of work.  If you raise the alarm she will be executed.  This is the unthinkable situation in which Moore places his protagonist, Dillon.  But to complicate the issue, this happens on the very day that Dillon has earmarked to leave his wife.  Another complication: Dillon is apolitical, unhappy about the situation,  but definitely anti-violence:

Dillon felt anger rise within him, anger at the lies which had made this, his … birthplace, sick with a terminal illness of bigotry and injustice, lies told over the years to poor Catholic working people about the Catholics, lies told to poor Catholic working people about the Protestants, lies from parliaments and pulpits, lies at rallies and funeral orations, and, above all, the lies of silence from those in Westminister who did not want to face the injustices of Ulster’s status quo.

So, what would you do in Dillon’s situation? And which choices does he make?   I can’t possibly tell you what happens except this traumatic incident paves the way for a second half in which tension subsides but terror becomes insidious. 

Moore pulls no punches and Lies of Silence, while set specifically in his home town, adds up to an absolute condemnation of terrorism of any kind.  Written in (unputdownable) thriller form, there were those who felt that he was demeaning his subject.  I disagree. The immediacy of the writing allows the reader to feel Dillon’s fear, experience his panic, make the same mistakes?

Lies of Silence is more than a thriller – it’s a literary offering as evidenced by its Booker shortlisting (losing, in the end, to A S Byatt’s Possession).  What makes it literary? The quality of the writing, the assurity of pitch and pace, description and dialogue,  the flesh and blood of its characters.  Moira, Dillon’s wife is a complicated creation.  She is the one who raises the questions of courage, who refuses to kow-tow to the bullies. For that is how Moore pictures the terrorists – badly-educated, mean-spirited bullies.  But he reserves his scorn for the apologists – in this case a weasel of a priest who seeks to prevent justice being served.

Published in his 69th year, Lies of Silence shows absolutely no sign of Moore’s pen mellowing with age.   While that may have dismayed many at the time of publication, it ensures that the novel remains fresh, pertinent and (even if the situation in Northern Ireland is now radically different)  relevant to today’s reading audience.

(Originally posted on TheMooreTheMerrier 7.01.08)

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Rarely does a paperback cover hint so atmospherically at a novel’s content as this one.  A middle-aged woman,  stands alone, staring out to sea.  Atmosphere in droves.  Loneliness …. desperation …. waste.

Waste?  It’s the psychology behind the red suit.  The woman wants to make a mark.  She wants to live.  She’s not ready to retire into the background.  She’s still has hope but she’s fading and not showing the best of judgement. She is a woman of a certain age and in the Belfast of the fifties derided by the less charitable as “mutton dressed as lamb”.  Which may well be true because the portrait Moore paints of her is, I feel, sympathetic, but not flattering. 

The novel opens as Judith moves into new furnished accommodation – a bedroom in a B&B.  She brings with her two cherished belongings: a picture of her great-aunt and an iconic Sacred Heart.  The former is placed on the mantelpiece, the latter above her bedhead.  Doing so, makes the room home.  It is the first hint that Judith has been on the move for a while.

At the lodgings she meets a variety of subsidiary characters.  All are memorable.  Her landlady and her son have a very unhealthy relationship.  There is another middle-aged spinster there – an absolute female dog (I do wish to keep this polite).  And there is Madden – the landlady’s brother, widowed, recently returned from the States ….

a man, available and with an aura of adventure (let’s face it there’s nothing adventurous in the Belfast that Moore paints).   Judith is the only one that finds Madden’s past fascinating.  She engages him in conversation and a friendship develops – a friendship, unfortunately based on wrong assumptions by both parties.  It would be a comedy of errors, if it wasn’t so tragic.  For both are, in separate ways, as desperate as each other.  Madden wants only a business partner, Judith wants much more – even though she knows that Madden is not an ideal catch and not good enough for her.  But she spent her marriageable years caring for her sick old aunt.  She didn’t get out much.  Incidentally those years coincided with the Second World War.  Now that her aunt is dead, so too are most of the men. Circumstance dictates that any man will do.

And so the crisis cometh and both succumb to their secret vices.

Interspersed with the “romance” is a more serious subtext.  That of Judith’s loneliness and the comfort/redemption she seeks in her Catholic faith. But the Church is unable to provide that which Judith needs and the dissolution of her relationship with Madden precipitates the dissolution of her faith – her crutch – her sanity? Yet, while the Church fails, a “friend”,  Moira practices a living, breathing christianity, extending a lifeline to Judith in her hour of crisis.  This is a bitter sweet pill for Judith who understands, with demoralising clarity,  that she has moved from the realms of friendship into those of charity.

Moore’s prose is lucid, direct and uncompromising and, I suspect, with regard to the religious themes,  heavily autobiographical.  I winced at times at the searing honesty of the dialogue.  There are no easy solutions.  Particularly heart-rending are the scenes depicting Judith’s tragic loss of faith; a faith which has kept her above sea level. Without it she will drown.

And so I return to the book cover.  I don’t remember such a scene.   Then again,  I may have been reading too quickly; despite the depressing subject matter, this is a pageturner. Moore is a master of pace.  Aspects of character are revealed in a measured, controlled and, at times, shocking way.  Neither Judith nor Madden are fully sympathetic characters yet I felt for them both. These characters live and breathe, jump off the page and punch me in the gut with their flawed humanity.  What more can I ask?

(Originally posted on TheMooreTheMerrier 1.12.2007)

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 It was bound to happen sometime and it has with my third and final book to movie challenge title.  The film has really, really annoyed me …..

Not that it’s a bad film.    Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins together as Judith and Madden are very good indeed.  Maggie Smith won the BAFTA for best actress and the pair of them won the Evening Standard British Film Award for best actress and actor.

No, it’s not the performances that have got under my skin.  It’s the additions to Brian Moore’s plot.

The book is absolutely marvellous.  This was Moore’s debut novel and it won the Author’s Club First Novel Award.  It is, without any sense of hyperbole, that I declare it a masterpiece.  Pitch and pace, dialogue and action are controlled, measured and revelatory in a I-can-hardly-bear-to-watch way.    There’s a circularity between the first and final scene that adds to the poignancy and tragedy of the whole.

So what’s the problem with the film.

1) Judith has issues which she is trying to address.  The nature of her problem is not explicitly revealed until the mid-point of the novel and that makes it more shocking.  Yet the film makers chose to reveal it in the opening scene of the film.

2) The symbolic circularity contained in first and final pages of the novel is destroyed by a completely pointless addon – a semi-reconciliatory scene between Judith and Madden, which adds nothing and destroys much. As indeed does the final film sequence in which Judith leaves the hospital ….

3) Judith’s acquaintance, Moira, is the only person who realises the role she plays in easing Judith’s loneliness.  Yet they are not really friends and Judith continues the acquaintance simply because there is noone else.  Yet during her meltdown she confesses to Moira that she never really liked her.  Despite this slap in the face, Moira continues to support Judith and provides for her in ways undreamt of.  A living breathing examply of Christian charity.  The film keeps the “I never liked you” scene but shifts it until after Moira has made provision for Judith’s care.  Diluting, in my mind, her act of charity. 

I accept that book and film are different and changes must be made to suit.  But I can’t understand why these changes were made.  They dilute the novel’s impact.  Obviously the film makers felt Moore’s plot was too depressing and needed some lightening.  Well, I’m not swallowing that for a moment!

The book scored a perfect .  Full review on themoorethemerrier – a blog I’ve started just to discuss Brian Moore’s novels – all 20 of them!  Because that’s the legacy of this Reading The Author challenge.  I’m hooked to Moore’s storytelling and I can’t stop now. A fallen woman – just like Judith!

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Graham Greene once described Brian Moore as “my favourite living writer”.  Moore’s death in 1999 means I can’t do the same but I can confirm that he is rapidly ascending the ranks of my all-time favourites. He must have something special for I kept reading even though Black Robe is a tale of full of atrocity and foul language.  Not my usual fare at all.

But it’s impossible to stop reading a novel that encompasses all of Moore’s compulsive themes: sex, the clash of ideologies, loneliness, betrayal and religion.  That’s a heady mix.  But then Black Robe is a heady novel.

Set in the mid-17th century, it describes Father Paul Laforgue’s journey into the heart of darkness of Northern Canada.  He is sent to relieve a dying priest of his post in a country inhabited by hostile, violent tribes.  While he is prepared for martyrdom, his young novice, Daniel, is more ambivalent and succumbs to infatuation and the temptations of the flesh offered him by Annuka, a young Algonkin squaw.  And so begin the religious complexities.  Not only does Laforgue attempt to save the soul of his fallen Christian brother, he must also attempt the conversion of the pagan and, it must be said, savage natives.  These are not the natives, cowed, domesticated and addicted to alcohol that we meet in Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, set 200 years after the events of Black Robe.  The tribes of Black Robe are savages.  To illustrate: at one point Laforgue, Daniel and his lover’s family are taken captive by the hostile Iroquois.

“May we caress the captives?” asked one of the women.

“Caress them” said Kiotsaeton, “but carefully, We must  make them last.”

The women, gleeful, at once thrust their burning brands against the genitals of Chomina and Laforgue, causng them to double up in pain.  They then burned Annuka’s shoulder and thrust a flaming stick into Daniel’s armpit  …

and this is just the start of a torture session that ends in the parboiling and cannibalism of a young Algonkin child.

Moore makes it clear that the savagery is a result of the native religious system,  which, with its belief in the world of night and the power of dreams,  is so far removed from Christianity that the idea of conversion is inconceivable.  Daniel and Annuka’s relationship,  at face value demonstrating that reconciliation is possible, becomes the catalyst for the destruction of her family.  Laforgue’s problems reconciling his experiences with his own beliefs precipitates a personal crisis of faith.

What’s amazing is Moore’s evenhandedness in showing both sides of the religious divide.  Raised an Irish Catholic, Moore famously renounced his faith on the boat leaving Ireland.  He waited that long, he said, so as not to hurt his mother.  Yet, he remained cognisant of religious faith that could inspire men to behaviour beyond what is normal.  So, while Black Robe shows the extremities of Indian belief, it does not condemn.  It explains.  So too Moore’s treatment of Jesuit faith and the behaviour of the missionaries.

The events are shocking and the outcomes bleak.  Yet Moore is depicting real history – his source the voluminous letters that the Jesuits sent back to their superiors in France.  He doesn’t sanitise the facts and as a result, demonstrates the bravery, the arrogance and the shortsightedness of the seventeenth-century Jesuit Blackrobes.

Presented with Moore’s trademarks, spare unadorned prose, strong visual elements, controlled pace and a tight plotline, this was quite simply unputdownable.


I won’t be rushing to rent the film. The pictures in my head are graphic enough!

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