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In some vaguely pre-modern era, the few inhabitants of an isolated Welsh island are primarily farmgirls and novice monks; the island's sole claim to celebrity is its ancient holy-Christian shrine, a vast well with supposedly curative powers--and long ago an Abbey was installed to supervise the shrine and its pilgrims. Recently, however, hardly any pilgrims have been coming to the island. Furthermore, those who have come have never returned to the mainland. So a priest named Vane now arrives--in a vivid opening scene: Vane's horse (rather too hcavyhandedly named ""Saviour"") can't be unloaded at the island's rocky, dock-less harbor. . . and is allowed to drown instead. What happened to all those missing pilgrims? That is the subject of Vane's mission: he quizzes the resident Abbot, visits the well, and finds a dead body there (which promptly disappears). But this odd novella is not a mystery: from the start the reader knows that the well-waters kill more than they cure, that the Abbot has stolen all the corpses for his dissection-researches. (He is searching for the location of the soul. ""He dissected each part to understand its working, but finally each organ, each bone, each sustaining mechanism of tissue was revealed as little more than an empty room in a house that seemed to grow larger the more familiar you became with it."") And this theme of body-vs.-spirit is echoed in other vignettes--from the quiet, gentle death of an elderly woman (the Abbot's soulmate) to budding love (between Vane's valet and a farmgirl) to the strange quasi-sexual initiation of a novice monk. First-novelist Fuller, a British poet, often allows the philosophical strain here to spill over too explicitly--in mock-sermons and ponderous dialogues. But much of this small fable is vivid and provocative, with related images (drowning, flying, knives) delivered in lean, graceful prose: an elegant mosaic, if flawed and minor, for connoisseurs of theological/poetic parables.

Pub Date: Feb. 15th, 1983
Publisher: Braziller