Of faith, doubt, and sorrow: Carroll (Warburg in Rome, 2014, etc.) delivers another religiously charged novel, and a fine one at that.
Former priest Carroll blends his well-aired interests in history, theology, and literary fiction in this deftly told story that partakes richly of all. He opens with a familiar but entirely appropriate episode in church history and, as it happens, one of the world’s great love stories: the doomed affair of Abelard and Heloïse, a story that Carroll complicates with a part that is less well known than Abelard’s mutilation and Heloïse’s cloistering, namely Abelard’s defense of the Jews of Mainz. “Jews be damned,” thunders an inquisitory abbot. “The battle now is for Peter’s eternal salvation.” Fast-forward to New York 800 years later, when a conflicted priest from a working-class parish decides to duck into a place not often visited by most working-class Catholics of Inwood, the Cloisters, its architectural elements “tastefully reassembled to evoke the high romance of Gothic revival that had so quickened the patrician imagination of the Gilded Age.” There, Michael Kavanagh meets Rachel Vedette, an alluring docent who is whip-smart, deep in reflection on the apostate Simone Weil, and harboring a few secrets of her own having to do with the intersection of and conflicts between the Jewish and Christian worlds. As Rachel slowly unveils her story, Michael comes into conflict himself with the inquisitory Catholic hierarchy—and not just over intellectual matters and questions of faith. As he and Rachel recapitulate elements of that foundational Abelard and Heloïse tale, always close to the possibility of tragedy, Carroll brings in a range of issues: the place of excommunicants in a supposedly forgiving church (“In our day,” one sagely remarks, “Abelard’s misfortunes wouldn’t have qualified as a priest’s spiritual reading”), the trauma and terror of priestly sexual abuse, the soul-shattering Holocaust that has so recently ended.
You don’t have to be Catholic—or Jewish, for that matter—to appreciate Carroll’s story, though it probably helps. A rich, literate tale well told.