It’s common practice to call a promising yet flawed first book a mixed success. This emotionally charged historical novel from Poster (Literature/Oxford Univ.) is a mixed failure.
Set in an unnamed village in the south of England in 1881, it recounts the experiences of John Stannard, a young architect hired through the intervention of a family friend to make extensive repairs to the village’s venerable, structurally compromised church. Stannard’s arrogant hauteur quickly alienates the laborers he hires, and things worsen considerably when one of “his men” is injured owing to Stannard’s error in judgment, and may be unable to support his ailing and impecunious family. Stannard also butts heads with the village minister, who deplores the architect’s disdainful unconcern for bodies buried (and accidentally unearthed) on church property and for decorative artwork that blends Christian and pagan motifs, most glaringly in a luridly erotic “doom painting.” Stannard furthermore fails to resist the blandishments of beautiful Ann Rosewell, whose family has been victimized by both misfortune and a venal wealthy neighbor, though he retreats from challenges the girl hurls at him—and gradually becomes dimly aware of how his own inhumane snobbery has influenced his fate. Poster’s complex characterization of his protagonist (a figure whom readers will love to hate) is brilliantly handled, and the novel’s picturesque setting and its mastery of the details of the “restorer’s” art are impressively rendered. However, the plot is hackneyed beyond belief, and the alacrity with which Stannard succumbs to Ann’s off-putting combination of erotic grace and emotional imbalance is almost embarrassingly unconvincing. In its many weak moments, the book reads like a script for a Monty Python skit.
There’s no doubting Poster’s talent. But this fitfully engaging period piece is undone by its miscalculations and excesses.