A Catholic official tries against all odds to live under a Puritan regime in 17th-century England.
In a different age, John Brigge would have been called a collaborator. A coroner and governor (i.e., town councilor) in rural northern England, John was raised by a devout Catholic mother who had lost friends and favor when she publicly refused to renounce the old faith. John is not nearly so brave, preferring to make a pretense of conforming to the Church of England while secretly holding to the rituals of his ancestors. It’s a risky compromise even so: The rise of the Puritans to power in the early 1600s has intensified the religious conflicts throughout England, and a succession of bad harvests has resulted in widespread poverty and even famine. Scapegoats are in demand, and religious fanatics are quick to expose them. The local authorities in John’s county are staunch Puritans who themselves only recently overthrew the venal Lord Saville and set up a strict campaign against public corruption and private vice, and, although John is well-liked by the new governors, he has kept his distance, living in retirement with his wife, Elizabeth, and avoiding public controversies. When a young woman in the district is accused of infanticide, however, John is summoned to investigate. Although the evidence points strongly toward the woman’s guilt, John insists on a proper inquest in accordance with the law. This brings accusations of disloyalty, and, when the accused woman begins to win a following in prison by speaking against the governors, the town fathers smell sedition in the air. John is compromised already by his religion. Can he be, like Thomas More, the king’s good servant but God’s first?
A fresh portrait of a familiar troubled era, but, careful reconstruction that it is, it works better as history, falling rather flat as fiction. This is Irish author Bennett’s fourth novel but second to appear here (after The Catastrophist, 2004).