Wednesday, 4 November 2015

'The Wine of Angels' by Phil Rickman, or who put the Vicar in the cider-vat!

I'm not sure which Apple-orchard I have been hiding in, or how this series has managed to elude me, but thank-you Anna Maxwell-Martin for bringing it to my grateful attention!

Having been enthralled by the brilliant 'Midwinter of the Spirit' on ITV, it was only natural that my inner- Magpie was going to swoop on any hint of bookish interest! What luck, that this series has been so fruitful in my ignorance. I'm not sure how a series, with a female exorcist as it's protagonist, could have escaped my attention- my only defence is that my to-read pile has reached ridiculous levels and probably requires some form of intervention. Thank you Merrily, for ably adding to this unidentified mass with such rigour.

You would think that 'Midwinter of the Spirit' (which was deliciously creepy and managed to send shivers down cynical old moi's spine) would be the natural place to start, in terms of an introduction to this series. However, it is preceded by 'The Wine of Angels' in series order. I will forgive this confusion, as Midwinter is where the exorcism formulates. Miss Maxwell-Martin so ably portrayed the complexities of Merrily's character- her reluctance, her doubt and many human imperfections that I felt I could only do her justice by starting at the beginning and her introduction to Ledwardine (the parish at the centre of the series). In fact, a real strength of Rickman's writing lies in its ability to build interesting, but imperfect characters- allowing us to look beyond flaws at the whole person. I get the impression this concept will be explored, to great effect, as the series progresses: that considering the balance between good and evil within a person will mirror the spiritual forces that will also be explored in a more explicit way, by means of exposition.

Yet at its heart, this novel is a mystery, a crime to solve, which it does in a sleepy, somatising way (not through boredom, but through the gentle power of the prose). Rural Herefordshire comes to life, with all its menace and hidden intrigue revealed in such a way that it feels exciting. You get a real sense of a writer that observes his surrounding in great depth and borrows from it in his writing, as appropriate, to craft a believable narrative. Instead of a formulaic crime novel, you are left with a story of many layers and much to consider such as Merrily's faith; lineage and the interplay between families over many generations; how people deal with trauma; how people overcome their mistakes (or are shaped by others') and to what extent people can transform and evolve (amongst others). What this depth adds, is an interesting ensemble of characters, that you feel vested in. I for one, cannot wait to find out how Jane (Merrily's teenage daughter) devolps, especially in light of her more pagan abilities and leanings. Or Lol, the anxious and withdrawn former rock star, whom is inprisoned by his former mistakes and the nefarious hold his former manager extends over him.  You get the sense that much more is lurking behind the idyllic setting, and that Merrily has been sent for reasons yet unknown....

Some of this purpose is hinted at, in the way the Orchard holds the residents in its malign grasp, as the story progresses. Jane seems to be awakened by ancient forces and the residents show deference to ancient practices, that have lost their cultural purchase to the modernity we inhabit. An ancient darkness lurks at the periphery of the pages, never quite revealing itself, to us or Merrily and we never quite feel the reassurance our own lives offer precisely because of its setting. The hedgerows and ancient trees hold more menace than a knife wielding psychopath ever could (perhaps making the final denouement all the more powerful. Yet while the crime reaches conclusion, Merrily's own inner struggle does also and you find yourself more interested in the fact she has found her inner-strength and taken charge of her parish, in more ways than one. I for one, look forward to savouring the coming novels as I am sure you will if you give them a chance.

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