Almost every review written of "Counting Stars" mentions David Almond's Catholic background and gushes over the quality of his writing. So eager are they to paint this book as Catholic that I thought I'd set the record straight right here.
What characterizes the Catholic imagination is the sense of the sacramental. If Catholics feel any wonder at all, it is from believing that God's grace can work through the most commonplace things and that Christ's love can shine forth from the most ordinary people. For Catholics, the invisible is just as important as the visible, if not more so. It is this which accounts for the respect Catholics give priests, the presence of icons in Catholic churches and homes, the devotions to Mary and the Saints, the belief in Angels, and the love of rich liturgy and tradition.
Almond gets this--and twists it terribly. In this book, what Catholics consider channels of grace, he portrays as instruments of doom. His characters are not blessed in their Catholicism but are punished for it, sometimes in painful, humiliating ways.
While some of the stories in this collection are a charming mix of reality and fantasy and are very vividly written, they are not enough to redeem the rest, which are a hateful and cynical sneer at all things Catholic. Embittered cradle Catholics make the worst anti-Catholics.
In the story "Counting the Stars", Almond strikes a blow at the priesthood. The priest in the tale is an idiot who believes that it is a sin to count more than a hundred stars at a time. The seminaries are not let off any more easily: in another story, a former seminarian intimates that all that he and the other young men in the seminary could ever think of was girls.
Then, in two very dark stories, Almond mocks Catholic devotions. The first of these, "Beating the Bounds", features an abused little boy; the second, "Loosa Fine", an abused and mentally retarded girl. The boy is named after St. Valentine, as he was born on St. Valentine's day--yet he does not seem to have any patron saint at all. In fact, many troubles come to him because of his name--many troubles but nary a blessing. As for the girl, she is taken to Lourdes by a group of well-meaning pilgrims (whose faith Almond paints as maudlin and immature); but what befalls her is not the prayed-for miracle but even more abuse, worse than before. She does not receive grace, only pain. This is a sneer at Lourdes, at all apparition sites, at Mary herself.
Almond leaves nothing untouched, attacking all that is sacred, from the Holy days (especially Good Friday, Black Saturday and Easter Sunday) to the sacraments (Confession in particular). Even prayer is dismissed: in "Behind the Billboards", a boy who fearfully prays the Hail Mary has his tongue slit with a knife. The main character explores New Age teaching, fully encouraged by his father and in contempt of his long-suffering mother. Not even Angels escape without being tainted with Almond's anti-Catholic bile.
As if this were not terrible enough, Almond also sprinkles some sex into the stories. Some of the references to what the characters do are so shocking that I can hardly believe they made it into a book intended for young people. Take this for example: the main character goes to the circus and meets a little girl who tells him that her mother reads fortunes by day and shows men her knickers by night; after this, he meets the girls' mother, who is indeed very motherly, and she invites him to come over later that night.
I can understand why those who know nothing about Catholicism would call this book "Catholic." The stories are dotted with Catholic details and all the characters are Catholic. Yet the truth about "Counting Stars" is that it may be the most anti-Catholic book ever to appear on YA shelves. Do not be misled.