Listen to this article
The Breath of Night, by Michael Arditti, Arcadia Books, RRP£11.99, 386 pages
It is a pleasure to open a book and realise immediately that the writer aspires to old-fashioned virtues. The Breath of Night is intended to be a serious novel that engages with big themes. It has a strong premise and is well-constructed. And Michael Arditti takes time and care over his choice of words.
Philip Seward introduces himself as a “twenty-seven-year-old failure”. A spell as an art critic and an unsuccessful novel have left him “barely eking out a living”, and he is mourning the death of his fiancée, Julia, in a car crash.
Julia’s family, the Tremaynes, are recusant Catholic grandees and a couple of years after her death Philip is summoned to the ancestral pile by her mother, Isabel. “Have you ever met a saint?” she asks.
Isabel’s uncle, Father Julian Tremayne, we learn, joined a missionary order of priests and, in the early 1970s, went to the Philippines. After more than a decade working with the poor he was imprisoned and then expelled by the Marcos regime. He returned when Marcos fell, only to be killed by Communist guerrillas.
Since Fr Julian’s death there have been, Isabel explains, stories associating him with miracles, and some former parishioners have petitioned to have him declared a saint. But the saint-making process is bogged down. Will Philip go to the Philippines and prepare an independent report to get things going? He will be well paid. Broke and intrigued, Philip accepts.
The narrative alternates between the story of his investigation and the letters Fr Julian sent home to his parents. We witness both men being changed by their experiences.
Fr Julian’s letters reveal a journey into what became known as “liberation theology”, and he wrestles with the temptation to step over the line dividing religion from political activism.
Philip hires a driver who works as a dancer in a gay nightclub, falls in love (or at least lust) with the man’s sister and encounters the seamier side of Manila life. His research alarms the church hierarchy, and he falls foul of a sinister Vicar General, who combines dodgy theology with mafia-like morals and camp table manners.
The influence of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene is obvious. Fr Julian’s background brings Brideshead Revisited to mind and there is also a debt to The Power and the Glory. Unfortunately, Arditti lacks Waugh’s sure touch, and makes small but irritating mistakes. In one of his letters, Fr Julian refers to a Catholic parish priest as “the incumbent”; it is a technical term for someone who enjoys the income of a church office and, is used – when used at all – of Church of England clergy, not Roman Catholics.
And taking care over words is not the same as choosing the right ones. When Philip sees a bereaved mother suddenly break down into tears we are told that, “The transition was so abrupt that it transcended the usual distinctions of truth and artifice, attesting to her urgent need to convey the intensity of her grief.” I am still not completely sure what this means but I am sure that Greene would never have written it.
There are also some outright howlers. Isabel tells Philip that the qualifications for canonisation are “zeal for the church, consecrated virginity, poverty and obedience”. This is tosh, and would come as a surprise to St Thomas More (an informal patron to old English Catholic families such as the Tremaynes), who became immensely rich, married twice and had four children. Since the Catholic Church looms so large in the narrative, such mistakes undermine the book’s claim to be taken seriously.
I very much wanted to like The Breath of Night, and was cheered by the way the action gathered pace in a couple of well-executed narrative manoeuvres towards the end. Even so, it never quite lives up to its promise.
Edward Stourton’s latest book is ‘Cruel Crossing’ (Doubleday)