Today I’m pleased to bring you two reviews: one, a historical novel set in a medieval English monastery and the other, contemporary fiction set on the Irish coastline. Both books – Brother Cyril’s Book by Penelope Wilcock (published Feb 2023 by Humilis, Hastings) and Winter People by Grainne Murphy (published Oct 2022 by Legend Press) demonstrate an acute level of sensitivity and discernment about human feelings and behaviour, and both are equally relevant to those of us today who seek to understand the inner life more deeply.
WINTER PEOPLE by Grainne Murphy
Here is a very sensitive and discerning account of three people living near each other on the Irish coast, all in solitude, all haunted by broken relationships, grief and regret, all aware of each other but never fully interacting.
Sis Cotter’s husband Frank died of cancer, and her two daughters Doreen and Cathy have moved away and have little concern for their mother, while her son Mike is also estranged from her. In three days she will be evicted from her home. She only has her loving canine companion, the elderly Laddie, and her memories, and her love of the sea, to sustain her.
Lydia lives nearby in a big house and watches Sis walk past every day. She is separated from her husband Andrew; her mother plagues her with selfish, judgemental phone calls; and she is tormented by guilt over a tragic accident she caused, which devastated the lives of a mother and son.
Peter is a local Sheriff whose job it is to evict people from their homes. Yet his inner life too is explored, and his vulnerabilities and tragedies exposed, along with his past as a fostered child, painfully aware of how it feels to live an unsettled life, constantly on the move from house to house. So he has sympathy for the people his job forces him to evict; and he tries to do it with kindness. Peter too is haunted by a tragic death; his boyhood friend Fintan who was so loyal and supportive, and who died of cancer, and whom Peter was afraid to visit in the hospice because he didn’t know what to say.
For me, this author gives us an acutely-observed account of the elemental shifts in our inner and outer lives, harmonising with the rhythm and the moods of the sea. Having followed through the story with empathy for the characters, I was glad to see some kind of uplift and redemption at the end.
BROTHER CYRIL’S BOOK BY PENELOPE WILCOCK
I loved this account of how Brother Cyril, timid and insecure young medieval novice, decides to go round his community asking every monk the same four questions; he will then put their answers into a book.
The responses from all the different monks are so moving. Alongside this, the author’s voice itself is wise and discerning, and some of her descriptive passages exquisite.
One particularly outstanding example is this lyrical passage:
The soul and the voice of stone… has a resonance of light… it… encapsulates and holds… memory, the thoughts of the earth and the pictures she keeps in her heart.
I found the book beautiful and touching, funny, delicate and playful. It’s both spiritual and totally relatable, being full of characters doing all the things we recognise – being hurt by the words of others, over-personalising, catastrophising, and many other recognisable elements of human behaviour. The reader may find here a captivating experience of accompanying these characters on a familiar journey of setting out with a spring in our step, stumbling over snares in the path, finding ways through and beyond, gaining new knowledge and understanding on the way, as we learn to live with one another in any community – not just that of a medieval monastery!
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