The Gospel of Eve by Rachel Mann. 262pp, Darton, Longman & Todd
Earlier this week I had a good old marking crisis. I was up until 2:30 am working through dissertations. As I finally collapsed into bed, I drifted back to memories of my undergraduate essay crises, the all-nighters that I occasionally had to pull. I do think of those intense, pressurised, tortured, idyllic (and pre-internet) college years from time to time, and it’s amazing how vividly the memories return.
Rachel Mann’s debut thriller, The Gospel of Eve, is partly responsible for this latest bout of reminiscence. Firstly, because I compulsively spent time earlier this week reading it, and hence substantially precipitated my own marking crisis. Secondly because, although not a traditional campus novel, it is set in the 1990s in a fictitious Oxford theological college, Littlemore, which has affinities with the rarefied world of traditional collegiate universities in decades past. Littlemore’s world is inhabited by well-bred students plus a few mature do-gooders, prissy or downright antediluvian dons, rooms in halls, scholarly jousting – and gut-wrenching disasters, all lightly doused in nostalgia.
The Gospel of Eve is also a page-turner. Characters and events shock and intrigue from the first pages when a body is found in terrible circumstances. We have a sympathetic but troubled narrator in Catherine, or Kitty, who gradually unravels as the story unfolds. Kitty had her own crisis of faith that led her to train for the priesthood and so, it transpires, did some other members of the close circle with which she becomes involved – Evie, Piers, Richard, Charlie (a young woman) and the enigmatic Ivo. Relationships within the group are fraught and intense, fuelled by mistrust, crushes, and alcohol: ‘We drank like only the young and holy can,’ (p.68) remarks Kitty. Then we find out that the group’s spiritual quest has taken a disturbing turn. There’s a chilling early scene in the novel, set on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral, that our narrator describes as ‘the blood incident’. From then on, bodily existence – its pleasures, temptations and discomforts – is placed at the heart of religious faith – for good or ill. At one point, Ivo declares: ‘Faith is not about belief or doctrine so much as the body. It is eating and fasting. It is acting in the world, in the light of faith. It is knowing God in the discipline of the flesh.’ (p.100). But Ivo is a dangerous character underneath his privileged, authoritative exterior. Should he be trusted?
Much of his and the group’s ascetic practices are born of a fervent scholarly and spiritual longing for the Medieval, where there is undoubtedly much food for thought. ‘The Medieval offers a subtle discourse, dangerous and pregnant with violence, of course, but nuanced.’ (p.98). Ivo and the others don’t comment on the poignant and affective devotion of later Medieval mysticism such as that of Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich, perhaps because this would tilt devotional practise away from endless penance and towards lyricism and compassion. We are left with the thrill of a dangerous alterity, and a certain amount of horror at how easily its violence can resurge.
Mann’s novel obliges the reader, as much as Kitty, to reflect on the implicit structures of power and gender bound up with concepts of fraternal correction and the mortification of the flesh. How much is punishment not only of the flesh, but of the feminine, requisite for the maintenance of Christian patriarchy, and what disruptive counternarrative is waiting to emerge? Hidden, subversive and suppressed currents of thought run through this novel like underground rivers. Once I’d finished the book, I could still hear them rushing along, under the surface of our everyday perceptions and (if we have any) religious assumptions.
For those with ears to hear it, this is a really notable quality of Mann’s novel. It’s a well-paced story of death, sex, intrigue and revelation in a college setting, but it’s a lot more than that too. Mann is herself a priest and a scholar, and weaves in her considerable theological knowledge lightly enough for it to be an organic part of the narrative. References from the Cummean Penitential (a medieval record of punishments for specific sins) to Phyllis Trible (a feminist theologian) appear – as do, literally, some priceless first editions, variously appropriated, bequeathed and stolen. Theft and restoration, intellectual as well as literal, is another significant thread of the narrative.
I should add that as well as drama and scholarship, the novel has its fair share of satire, both clerical and cultural. The well-meaning pastoral innovation of ‘prayer triplets’ will either intrigue or dismay you (or possibly both), and I daresay I could be persuaded to join Littlemore’s ‘Edmund Bertram Society’: ‘Ostensibly devoted to Mansfield Park’s serious clergyman, it supplied an excuse for middle-aged female ordinands to drink Pinot Grigio and watch videos of Colin Firth’s chest-hair.’ (p.71). Well!
Full of pace and paradox, then, this is a great novel for almost any circumstance, except perhaps for those of a nervous disposition, or those with urgent marking deadlines easily derailed by an imaginative mystery. If you enjoyed Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, you might like the somewhat similar intellectual and narrative energy to be found here. But The Gospel of Eve has its own very distinct atmosphere, and is likely to leave you both enchanted and troubled.