I have to admit that there were moments, as I was reading The Breath of Night by Michael Arditti, when I wondered what on earth squeamish old me was doing reading a book that from one innocent page flick to the next suddenly left me stranded, miles from anywhere, and confronted by an episode of crucifixion...
...or a moment of acid-pouring down a male dancer's posing pouch.
Well at least I think that is what happened, I have to admit I looked away and flicked swiftly onwards on the Paperwhite.
The situation in the Philippines had looked so dire on TV following the recent typhoon that I could hardly begin to imagine how dreadful it must be on the ground. 12,000 babies due to be born in the affected area in the next two weeks and barely a hospital left standing...it doesn't bear thinking about really does it. I'd like to give everyone a Shelterbox and at least know they had the means to make a temporary home, and how on earth does a country start to rebuild in the wake of such devastation??
And then just as suddenly it is yesterday's news and we forget.
Nor, I had to confess, did I know a great deal about the people and the culture of the Philippines beyond Imelda Marcos and her collection of 2,700 pairs of shoes. To my
surprise I discover that Imelda Marcos is still alive and was herself caught up in the recent typhoon (there is one in the book too) and indeed she makes a cameo appearance in Michael Arditti's book.
By chance, and maybe down to some clever marketing in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, The Breath of Night by Michael Arditti had surfaced on the Kindle Daily Deal and I fell for it. I have been struck beyond all measure by the resilience and optimism of a people who would have every right to feel crushed and defeated, so with the country raised in my consciousness this was probably the best time to read a book set in the Philippines, and I had heard good things; the sample enough to make me splash out the 99p for the rest.
Half-hearted journalist Philip Seward is dispatched to the Philippines on a sort of latter-day Heart of Darkness mission (minus the river) by his in-laws Isabel and Hugh Olliphant. Philip had been married to their daughter Julia, tragically killed in a car crash with her brother Greg, and Isabel, a mother in mourning, had focused her attentions in the wake of her loss on another lost family member, her uncle Julian Tremayne.
Julian had been a missionary in the Philippines in the 1970s, and having been implicated in the assassination of a local military commander had served a jail sentence before his eventual release. On retreat in the mountains afterwards Julian had been captured and killed and Sainthood beckoned. Miracles had been reported and Philip is charged with information-gathering to speed up the process of canonisation.
There have you got the gist??
I'm quite pleased that I had given that this was a Kindle read because I still wonder how much sinks in via a screen versus a page.
The most obvious question the book raises is why does the Philippines, second only to the Vatican for Catholic devotion, need missionaries, and it is this along with many other theological and social questions that Michael Arditti explores in this novel. Not really my specialist subject at all but no less interesting for that and always good to extend beyond the boundaries of my reading parish.
A country of contradictions and contrasts slowly emerges, with the spotlight firmly focused on the double standards of a Church that teaches against both contraception and abortion and then unsurprisingly has no practical solution for the huge unlimited families living in abject poverty and scraping a living by very dubious means. The sex trade proliferates alongside the obscene wealth of the Marcos regime, and Julian's letters home, which feature in each chapter juxtaposed to Philip's 'research', mediate a priest in turmoil and one with an increasingly politicized outlook. The menace and danger coupled with a sense of impending doom is beautifully controlled by Michael Arditti as it grows exponentially for Julian, and likewise for Philip who finds himself taking increasing risks to get to the heart of Julian's story.
The Imelda Marcos cameo appearance at a reception is deliciously wicked. Asked for her opinion on the tens of thousands of families living on the rubbish tips Imelda is keen to point out that this gives them all immunity against disease, thus saving on the vaccination programme. I was about to say 'You couldn't make it up,' but then I thought 'This is fiction surely it has to be made up.... doesn't it.'
Now, even with all the squeamish bits, I did keep flicking the pages because I was bothered enough to find out what happened, and I wasn't disappointed. Layers of fiction is the best way to describe this without spoiling, and Philip is not the only victim of rug-pulling from under feet, prepare for some surprises if you do brace yourself to read this one.
In the end, yes I think I do understand the Philippines and the people a little better, especially coupled with recent news bulletins, and witness the unfailing faith in God that so many of those people interviewed have declared. It is a much-needed faith which overcomes absolutely everything, and I suspect there would be interesting debates to be had around issues of religion as a means of social control for any reading group that chose this one.
Meanwhile, perhaps another lasting impression...
'Is it legal?' he asked
'It's Manila,' Max replied. 'That's a question you learn not to ask.'