West’s 19th novel (after OK and Dry Danube, both 2000) painstakingly fictionalizes the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which Catholic conspirators led by Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up Parliament, and in the process murder England’s anti-Catholic King James I and his chief ministers.
West focuses initially (and, throughout, primarily) on Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest hidden in the home of Catholic noblewoman Anne Vaux, in one of the elaborate recesses (“priestholes”) designed and constructed by Little John Owen, a master of “deceptive carpentry” whose willingness to undertake such work presumably relates to his own dwarfish near-invisibility (he’s “a miniature freak . . . a gnome of the shadows”). The story stalls for much of its first hundred pages, as West roves through the cloistered thought processes of: Father Garnet (also troubled by unwelcome sexual imaginings), Lady Vaux, and Owen—as well as composer William Byrd, an acquaintance of Father Garnet’s, whose music gains him entry to Catholic and Anglican circles alike. Things pick up when events overtake ruminations, ending in the capture of several conspirators, while West broadens his focus to include “Guido” Fawkes himself (who, under torture, names names and implicates others), royalist aristocrat (and, in effect, Lord High Executioner) Sir Robert Cecil, and Machiavellian King’s Attorney Sir Edward Coke. And the tale rises to real eloquence in its rich closing pages, where Father Garnet agonizes over the relative claims of violence and inaction, and prepares himself to die. West’s love of the high style is well-suited to “the seething rot of Elizabethan and Jacobean society”; one wishes only that his (rather arch) omniscient narrator had reined in his tendencies toward elegant variation and superfluous commentary.
The rhetoric is gorgeous, but the pace is too often funereal. Not, therefore, one of West’s real triumphs—but a failure that many novelists might well envy.