Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Heather Terrell's "Brigid of Kildare": Book Review
It's an ingenious twist on a medieval glitch. If Gerald of Wales in his 12c journey through Ireland saw a treasured book that was not the famed one already at Kells, but that of Brigid's Kildare monastery from the 5c, how might its reliquary, and its secrets, alter-- if slightly-- how Rome treats women, and how the Church interprets the cult of the Virgin Mary?
Terrell, in the style of theological speculation in the form of historical fiction, shows how Alex Patterson, an appraiser of relics and reliquaries, learns about the altered tale via the apocryphal "rejected" gospels that come with refugees after the collapse of the Roman Empire into Ireland, bringing with them alternative views of Christianity. Terrell interprets Brigid as part-goddess by will, part-bishop, open to a blend of matriarchal and Marian devotions, who consecrated by a dying Patrick manages to bridge pagan with Celtic church practices-- until Rome gets wind of "heresy" and sends Decius, a spy posing as scribe.
The story, for me, appealed. Yet, as with the nun early on lecturing Alex about the dates and facts necessary for us (if not a scholar) to find out about the English invasions and Roman domination of Ireland's countercultural worship and somewhat suspect beliefs from the 5th c, it gets awkward to read a novel where characters must recite such information to each other for our necessary benefit. This is never easy to do, and Terrell by mixing the account of Decius with an omniscient portrayal of Brigid's earlier life, alongside Alex's mission to uncover the story of the relic from Kildare, makes for an ambitious narrative for a short tale.
Still, Terrell manages to convey the facts along with the fiction efficiently. The book flows well, but the language edges into cliches of Irish beauty and Roman severity; I'd have appreciated more nuance in the modern-day people in particular. Her characters in contemporary form don't jump off the page, and I wish Alex had more depth; Terrell with Brigid herself and Decius to a lesser degree manages to flesh out more of their inner struggles more satisfactorily. The last chapter does take, considering history's direction with this particular chronicle presupposed, a sudden diversion that does not, for me, jibe with the actual report (I am staying vague here to keep suspense) we have. Therefore, it threw me off, much as I found the scenario Terrell conjures up intriguing in its own way.
So, I recommend it to an general audience who might wish to learn in an approachable way the intricacies of early medieval Ireland and how the Celtic Church might have evolved "off the record", even if as a novel it's a bit romanticized and fanciful compared to what seem the harsher realities of Irish life back then. There's a respect for the material and a level of discussion of the spiritual and practical ramifications that suggests the thought behind the tale. Although the characters veer towards standardized figures, there's a lot of slightly subversive ideas worth mulling over-- I wish they were mulled over more. (Posted 2-2-10)