Anyway. Enough of minor annoyances. I've just finished my 6th. book for Carl's R.I.P VI... the best of the lot so far... and that is The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman.
Ledwardine is a fictitious village in Herefordshire, an English county on the Welsh borders. It's had no vicar for a little while and Merrily Watkins is brought in as the 'priest in charge'. Right from the start there are traumatic events. An elderly man commits suicide in the large apple orchard that almost surrounds the village, during a kind of pagan night-time ceremony, witnessed by a large crowd. And, aside from that, things just don't feel right in the village. Lucy Devenish, a local shop owner and expert on folklore in the county, hints at all kinds of rum goings on and starts to involve Merrily's fifteen year old daughter, Jane.
One night, Jane goes out drinking with Colette, a local restaurant owner's daughter. Not realising the strength of the local cidar, Jane gets drunk and, pursued by local yobs, the two girls end up in that same apple orchard. Things become confused and Colette disappears. Being a bit of a trollope, people think she's just disappeared off with some lad, but has she?
It doesn't help that Merrily hates the vicarage. It's a huge place that doesn't feel at all welcoming and her and Jane find themselves rattling around in its large rooms and corridors. Not only that, Merrily is having waking nightmares and starts to wonder if the place is haunted.
More problems arise when a local playwright and his young boyfriend want to stage a play in the church. It's based on the story of a young seventeenth century priest of the parish who was accused of witchcraft and put to death. The boyfriend, an actor, feels the priest might have been gay and this was the reason he was hounded to death. The play is clearly controversial and the village is divided, some supporting, some violently against, led by the sort of squire figure, John Bull-Davies whose ancestor was involved with the trial.
From not being able to believe her luck at being transferred from inner Liverpool to the rural idyll of Ledwardine, Merrily now regrets her move. She not only finds herself between a rock and a hard place as regards the play... she also has no idea what's going on with her own daughter who clearly has a lot of secrets she does not want to share. If Merrily is to keep this job she has sort the mess out before someone else disappears in mysterious circumstances, or even dies...
Well, this was a bit of doorstop of a book (600 pages) which has kept me royally entertained for a week. My eldest daughter pressed it on me, saying that I must read it as it was excellent. And so it was!
I would describe it as a 'busy' novel. A lot going on in respect of plot lines - things going on in people's lives... much more than I've been able to describe here to be honest. And it's all very cleverly interwoven. Things affecting one person inter-connect with someone else so it's a bit like a jig-saw puzzle where all the pieces need putting togther to see the whole.
It's a while since I've been this involved in a book and I think that's down to the main character, Merrily, and her daughter, Jane. They seemed very real to me, especially the difficult relationship that can exist between mothers and their teenage daughters. How does a modern teenager feel, for instance, when her mother finds God and becomes a Church of England vicar? Jane is especially embarrassed to see her mother praying in front of the window and in one bit they sit to eat dinner and Jane says to herself over and over, 'Please don't say grace, please don't say grace...' It's thought provoking and very very honest.
There's also a very real sense of place. Herefordshire is a very pretty county and you can sense the history as you travel around. There are still many villages just like Ledwardine with their black and white timbered houses and apple orchards. In this story orchard is a character in itself, creepy, atmospheric, stifling almost, and the centre of much that is weird and strange.
If the book has a fault it's that some of the village characters are a trifle clichéd. There's an overbearing squire figure, a crazy 'folklore' expert who's an older woman, the playwright is gay because of course all artistic people are... and so on. It didn't worry me particularly because I do realise that clichéd characters are written because they are often like that in real life and to pretend otherwise is to deny the reality of things.
All in all, this is the best book I've read in ages, and I've read a few good ones recently. I'm delighted that it's book one of a series of eleven and can see that I'm going to get completely hooked on Merrily Watkins and her adventures in Herefordshire!