A Question of Integrity

A Question of Integrity by Susan Howatch tells the story of Alice, a young woman who has experienced only disappointment and reached a very low point, who finds kindness and then hope in a Christian community centred on a London church and healing centre. It's led by a charismatic preacher with some special gifts; Alice fixates on him and develops an unhealthy obsession which she finds it hard to come to terms with, until the end of the novel. Nicholas the preacher is a problematic character, both as a type, and as the crux of the story. His gifts, which are described variously in terms of magnetism, healing and hypnosis, have a dark side, and it is his use of those gifts which raise the question of integrity in the book's title.

A Question of Integrity is very different indeed from the genres I usually read. It was a personal gift, and that entered into my attitude to the book. Perhaps I'm implying that I might otherwise have left it alone, or given it up. I don't know. I seem to have shifted my values when it comes to my reading culture, and my choices are more random these days. Here was a book presented to me, with a world view foreign to me, and I wanted to tap into it, to see if I could open up my mind a little more, and maybe learn from its writing and structure.

The structure is interesting, since it involves an ambitious example of story being told from different points of view, all first person. Alice's perspective bookends the novel's five major sections, and in between we hear from Nicholas's older, very conservative colleague Lewis; Nicholas' wayward and unsympathetic wife Rosalind; and Nicholas himself. When an author writes first person, one natural question relates to gender. Since Susan Howatch is obviously female, how convincing are Lewis and Nicholas? Are their voices distinct? Well actually, they are, and nothing jars. The book isn't primarily about 'what it means to be a man' etc., and while some male readers might expect certain further ways of thinking and acting to be evident, I think they would then be asking for different characters from the ones that Susan Howatch is trying to depict.

I think the author sets up a more difficult challenge for herself, in telling the story consecutively via the different points of view, the only slight overlaps being a handful of passages of flashback. For me, the sections knit together well, one just occasionally wishes certain events were told from a different point of view. It may have been an unintended consequence that I ended up being rather more sympathetic to Rosalind, and very much less to Nicholas, than the author might have expected. Their marriage fails, and it's clear it was always unsatisfactory, being founded on a childhood friendship which has no substance in adulthood. And although Rosalind transgresses - and with her glossy magazine lifestyle I have no doubt I'd find her insufferable - the roots of her depression and moral breakdown are clear enough; I find Nicholas far less sympathetic. If you read the book, you might well feel the author establishes his path through vanity and blindness to the truth well constructed, but I felt we were being asked to accept his recovery and redemption a little glibly. Especially since the dramatic climax of the story, involving two other principal characters, has far less practical impact in the novel than it would have in real life. However, much of this is seen through Alice's eyes, so maybe it's fair enough.

I did want to think about the writing. Where I least enjoyed the novel - in relative terms! - was in the writing style and in the awkward imposition of certain elements. The writing isn't poor - yes, I'm very self conscious here that I'm not published and she is a professional writer - but it's very character-centric at the expense, in my view, of world building. Excessive passages of visual description and scene setting can be tedious, but I'd have liked more use of telling visual details and so on, to put me in the scene more vividly. As to the awkward features I was referring to, the glaring example involves the taglines she uses along with the character names in the heading for each section: Lewis: The Unvarnished Truth, Alice: The Cutting Edge of Reality, and so on. I don't mind them in themselves, but I do the fact that Howatch jams the phrases in to the text at frequent intervals, even into characters' speech.

Susan Howatch is an established author, as her bibliography makes clear. Her books often have a background with a setting of a Christian community. And her exploration of themes of religious faith is plain to see, in the drama and dilemmas of her stories; or, at least, this one - I've only glanced at synopses of her other books. I don't mind any of that. I may be agnostic myself, but my upbringing makes me reasonably accepting, when she's open and honest in her worldview. Furthermore, she draws overtly from (Anglican) Christian ideas and teachings in the quotations that head each part of the book. My first reaction was almost to ignore them, since authors often do this, insert 'serious/respectable' quotations, and they usually feel unnecessary. The chapters begin with a quote from the authors of A Question of Healing, while the five major sections begin with quotations from Healing is for God and A Dictionary of Pastoral Care by Rev. Christopher Hamel Cooke. But in this case they're carefully chosen and progressively develop. They are clearly very important to the author, since the sources underpin her themes. They concern healing. I found myself meditating on them more and more as the novel went on, in fact I could almost have done without the melodrama, but then the story would have been very austere and hard going.

It might sound like A Question of Integrity failed with me but that's not the case at all. I'm glad I read it through and engaged with it. Some like the patchwork quilt of their reading to be a tasteful colour co-ordinated pattern of tasteful consistency; I'm happy for mine to be an uneven and sometimes clashing jumble of conflicting colours, shades and styles.

Comments

  1. By a strange coincidence I have just been rereading the Starbridge Trilogy by Susan Howatch, she wrote two trilogys The Starbridge ones and those based on the London healing Centre that Question of Integrity is part of. Nick Darrow is in both and his father a large actor in the first.

    Her technique is of different first person narratives as described above and the books do reflect much modern theology, especially Honest to God, but the main thing driving these clerics and their wifes and girlfriends seems to be "sex".... just as well she doesn't have "celibate" Catholics in her sights. The last book about a male prostitute who connects to the healing centere is real thriller / 50 shades and more stuff with a very unlikely outcome...
    That said they all have interesting theological ideas and concepts in them, and many characters are based on real figures - I used to work with the daughter of one of those bishops.
    If I had to sum them up though I think I would paraphrase my good friend John Davey's comment about politicians (delivered 20+ years ago) "the trouble with politicians is they just cant keep their trousers on"

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  2. Thanks, that is indeed illuminating. I doubt if I'll read further books in the series, but not because I see no value in them, it's simply that there's so much else I want to read more. As I suggested before, I do respect the expression of serious theology which underpins the story, while I'm less fond of some of the 'wild' incidents which various characters get involved in. In the end, it's a matter of personal taste; I found her story telling style a bit limited in its world building. Or visual detail, to put it another way. But I realise many readers wouldn't see it the same way at all.

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