Havoc, in Its Third Year: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Aug 24 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Bennett (The Catastrophist) pens an evocative, somber account of a man facing a crisis of spirit and conscience in early 17th-century England, when "men of property were gripped by fears" and decried the poor, the immigrant and the unemployed as spreaders of crime and sin. Upstanding town coroner and governor John Brigge, a man of "the old faith" who "lived with signs and saints," is called to investigate the death of a baby allegedly murdered by the child's own mother, Katherine Shay, a proud Irish Catholic woman. She denies not only the crime but the right of her Puritan inquisitors to try her. Brigge, struck by the young woman's refusal to quietly accept her fate, begins to believe that she may indeed be innocent. But because the townspeople have already decided she is guilty—and have sniffed about Bennett the secret airs of a papist—he understands that his own fate will hinge on whether or not he goes along with those who claim to work for the benefit of God, even as they serve their own selfish ends. Marvelously told, with memorable characters, powerful dialogue and description, and subtly drawn parallels to contemporary issues, this is one of the more rewarding historical novels to come along in some time.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
John Brigge is a coroner in a small town in the north of England (perhaps modelled on Halifax, perhaps not), circa 1630. His job is his office, his calling; whenever there is a sudden or unnatural death he must answer dutys call, whether the remains on view might be no more than a jawbone or a finger, or some parcels of rancid black meat worried up by the dogs. Of course, it might also be a young man gored by a bull, or a gummy old crone brought by despair to a rope fastened from the timbers of a barn.
Neither the gruesome variety nor the prospect of his beloved wife about to give birth can deter him from his solemn duty. Despite a location remote from the parliamentary thrust and parry of late Stuart London, which would lead within the decade to the tortures of civil war and the ignominious beheading of the monarch Charles I, Brigge is still a prominent citizen of seventeenth-century England, a time when duty, discipline, and the dictates of piety were taken very seriously indeed. Only a man determined to defraud his own name would neglect such an office, and John Brigge is not such a man. Thus he answers the summons of Constable Scaife, calls for his clerk Adam, and saddles the horses for the long, rainy ride to town.
Although not easily irked or tempted to act impetuously, Brigge is a man more or less at the end of his tether, sorely tried by the factional politics of his country town. He now craves the uncomplicated trials and comforts of farm and hearth as solace to a sickened soul.
Having swept much of Europe in the preceeding decades, the Reformation had left some communities deeply riven in its wake: various Protestant denominations vied to be seen as the most godly in the moral sweepstakes, and recusant Catholics, rich and poor, hid priests in cellars and celebrated the mass in secret. England, in the years leading up to the Civil Wars, was the scene of turmoil, poverty and suspicions of a superstituous and theological bent. Vagrants with no recourse roamed the countryside looking for shelter and sustenance. Towns, even the truly Christian ones, were overwhelmed by claims on the public purse and resorted to punishment and imprisonment as last ditch attempts at social control. Mothers with bastards, idle youth, Gypsies and Irish fleeing war and famine, all were catered to in the manner the ascendant Protestant zealots prefered-reform the poor, maintain the new orthodoxy and savage the sins of the ungodly. Contempt and cruelty rather than compassion and mercy had become the order of the day.
A contemporary chronicle, considered by some a classic, gives something of the flavour of the times. In History of Myddle, as quoted in John Kenyons Civil Wars Of England, Richard Gough lists fourteen men who went to war from his tiny Shropshire hamlet; they included a notorious tearaway whose father had been hanged for felony, one of the Gough family servants, a bastard nephew of the village blacksmith, a younger brother of the village innkeeper, a wandering tailor of no fixed address, and four complete drop outs, a father and three sons who lived in a cave outside the village with no visible means of support.
A Doctor of History, whose dissertation focused on Enforcing the Law in Revolutionary England 1640-60, Ronan Bennett is well placed to evoke such a time and place, and he accomplishes his task for the most part with great nimbleness and grace. His fourth novel does, on occasion, make a display of its erudition, but these odd whiffs of ostentation are soon shackled to the grim task at hand. Although this is a world where feelings of disquiet steal into hearts and poor men wear old fustian doublets, doffing their caps as they promise to be your honours most faithful servant, only a few wapentakes and imparlances ultimately disrupt the view. As disciplined as the Puritans he evokes, Bennetts sentences generally shape themselves without obvious recourse to craft and refinement.
Here is John Brigge, making his way through the marketplace: Past the capons, cocks and other fowls. And further, beyond the eels, trout, graying and chubb and the stink of fish. On, further, towards the shambles smell, not sharp like the fish, but deep, secret and laden. On to the shambles itself, through the viscera of the market, the panting contents of the steaming cavities and all the carnal evidences of the solid world.
He is looking for his young clerk Adam, and finds him in a crowd revelling in the public punishment of two fornicators. The male is bored with a heated iron, whereupon the crowd roared its delight, grateful for the sating of its most insistent appetite. His consort comes next. She did not faint away but mastered her terror and stood her ground and set her jaw. After her ear has been bored and the crowd hears her howl and sees her stagger, the constables man thr[ows] down his hot iron and [stands] panting beside the mangled pair, worn out from the efforts of his flogging and boring. A few moments later, another transgressor, Margery Farrer, is tied to a cart, her hair rudely shaved and urine poured all over her. Thats before shes whipped into unconsciousness.
Incidents of violence, mutilation, disease and starvation are brought to the readers attention with startling regularity, presumably on the customary pretext of historical veracity. Though rarely gratuitous, cruelty and brutality are so regularly evoked, that the reader who manages not to recoil may at least be discomfited. The glee of the perpetrators is on a par with the anguish of their victims: both are rendered without restraint. One cannot help but wonder whether such versimillitude is not in the service of some extra-literary agenda. Great writing does not require the services of gore. Its repeated presence in such a context is disquieting. Mr. Bennett, it strikes me, might be one of those who, given the chance, would have you see the complete, unedited videos of those infamous beheadings in Iraq, while denying any dark connections between titillation and edification. Having enjoyed the expert crafting of his historical fiction thoroughly, almost too thoroughly, I sought to uncover any extra motives the craft might conceal.
Some small research revealed Bennett as the author of Double Jeopardy, a little remembered but incisive 1993 report on the retrial of the Guildford Four, who, along with the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Family and others, were rather too quickly nabbed by English police desperate for convictions in the various pub and bus bombings in England during the mid-seventies. Bennett also co-wrote Paul Hills memoir Stolen Years, which became the Daniel Day-Lewis film In the Name of the Father. In the middle of Double Jeopardy, Bennett reveals that for several days he too was incarcerated, along with his brother by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in connection with the murder of a policeman during a robbery. He intimates that the lengthy interrogation faced by the two of them was something far less than humane, and indeed quite similar to the brutalising endurance test Paul Hill makes claims about in his book. Some of this material is cleverly recycled with the usual what, me? postmodern irony in Bennetts first novel, The Second Prison.
Now where, you are asking, is this tawdry detective work heading? As I see it, its headed in the general direction of exposing Protestants and the ism they represent as Bennetts perennial bête noir. In his first novel, the villains are the Protestant police; in his second, Overthrown by Strangers (1992), its, as Colin Burrow in the London Review of Books would have it, theyre the Protestant-imperialist-hypocritical-murdering-bastard-Americans; in his third, The Catastrophist (1997), its the heros feckless philandering Protestant father; and in Havoc, its the Puritan town council, whose zealotry perverts them into hypocritical sadists who torture in the name of public security and orthodoxy.
Two of these local worthies go so far as to frame an Irish Catholic indigent, Katherine Bray, for infanticide. In his slow but relentless uncovering of their dastardliness, masked as moral authority, John Brigges own recusancy is uncovered, and he lands in the same house of sinners as the innocent he is attempting to protect. Only a raging fire of unsubtly apocalyptic proportions saves them from the ritual sacrifice demanded by the new puritys tyranny. Finally moved by Katherines repeated goads, Brigge does become a kind of St. Germanus, the patron saint of prisoners; he leads their ragged assembly around the counties, pressing their vision of piety on all they encounter. At one point Bennett has them usurp the infamous story of Quaker James Naylor, who outraged the town of Bristol by having the way before him strewn with palm leaves in imitation of Christ. Such partisan recasting of history goes a mite beyond the pale for this reviewer. I dont know what you smell, but I smell a rodent, one of the celtic variety. You know the argument-it goes, The Irish saved civilisation only to have the bloody English destroy it.
One looks forward to future works where Mr. Bennett will evoke both the conceits and catastrophes of his chosen epoch without recourse to the intemperate passions of praise and blame. As one who can conceive, and then unroll, from inspirations endless stash, paragraphs such as the following, the prospect does indeed look rosy:
There is no better way for a man to get an advantage over another than seeing him in his house with his wife. Abroad, even the humblest labourer can counterfeit himself a lord. Indoors, men are observed for what they are: children, with their favourite cups, and their chairs which must be this way or that, and everything just so.
Gordon Phinn (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
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Though he attends the prescribed protestant church, Brigg is in reality a "papistical malignant," a man who walks the difficult line between the Puritanism of the Master, a lifelong friend, and his belief that "men must have mercy, for without mercy we are savages." When Brigge is suddenly called to conduct an inquest on an infant found dead in a local pub, he discovers that Katherine Shay, a Catholic deemed "prideful, brazen, and uncontrite," has been arrested for the murder.
With numerous subplots and much intrigue, the story of Katherine Shay's arrest and John Brigge's search for justice on her behalf evolves. The period comes to life on every level of society as the author shows in realistic detail the kinds of gruesome punishments meted out for "sins," the harshness of life for the homeless poor, the dependence of farmers on luck and weather, the fragility of life, the excesses of religious extremism, and the abiding power of love. Realistically presented motivations for some of the extreme behavior in the novel make the Puritan characters come alive, as John Brigge, a man who sees more than one side to each issue, becomes a protagonist for whom the reader develops much sympathy.
The elegant and formal language of the novel resembles that of the Bible. Filled with observations of the harsh natural world but revealing the humanity of the main characters, the novel has a rare historical integrity and unity, with poignant applications to the present day. Despite its forbidding subject matter, the novel is exciting--full of well-paced action and suspense. Many characters have biblical parallels, obvious in their names--Elizabeth, Deborah, Starman, and John Brigge, sometimes known as Germanus. The religious parallels are unobtrusive during the body of the novel, but the ending is overtly symbolic and didactic, the book's artistry and elegance subordinated to message, and its thematic balance and restraint sacrificed to an overly obvious, religious conclusion. (4.5 stars) Mary Whipple
Havoc, in Its Third Year answers every qualm I've had about the genre. It's saturated with history without hitting the reader over the head with names and dates. Its plots and subplots are inextricably bound up with the historical issues at hand (religious and political strife in seventeenth-century England), so there is no tension between history and mystery.
The dialogue has the barest hint of archaism to it, light enough not to be obtrusive, but just enough to remind readers that the story's time is not their own. The protagonist, a discreetly Catholic coroner and civic official named John Brigge, is one of the most admirable characters in all of fiction. There's even murder mixed in.
I do much of my reading late at night, so I could well rate books by how late they keep me up. Havoc, in Its Third Year receives the first-ever, surely soon to be coveted Detectives Beyond Borders 6+ rating, for keeping me up past 6 a.m.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
As an Asian reader without any knowledge whatsoever of the politics of the times as between Catholics and Protestants etc, the universality of the novel's theme about the right of an individual to exercise compassion and forgiveness (ie, what it means to be human) is one so powerful as to render any disadvantage from the lack of historical knowledge irrelevant.
It seems too much of a coincidence that in my reading of the book I should be keenly reminded of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible". John Brigge bears a strong resemblence to the John Proctor character in "The Crucible" and his situation to Proctor's one-man crusade against the witch hunt of the McCarthyist era in America. Even his secret shame - a past adulterous affair he deeply regrets with Dorcas, the servant girl, his wife Elizabeth's unexpressed knowledge of it - is almost identical to Proctor's tragic situation that would lead ultimately to his undoing. Adultery, conscionable treachery, dishonourable compromise are all common failings, but there is redemption yet if one has the courage to remember what it means to be human.
Bennett's writing is gloriously profound. His prose flows beautifully. There are lapses though, as when his characters disappear into their own thoughts and start to hallucinate. I also felt the story ended on a rather unsteady note.
"Havoc, In Its Third Year" is nevertheless a substantial triumph that stands head and shoulders above some other more famous books published in 2004. A Booker longlist that should have been in the shortlist.
The current group of local governors came to power amid high hopes, after dislodging the harsh Lord Savile. Three years on, they are falling under the icy hand of Protestant fanatics. The moderates are gradually picked off, set up and arrested, and the bigots are eager to tip the scales further. Opportunists shift their ground; the local leader Nathaniel Challoner, a rather Bill Clinton-esque figure, tacks ever further to the Right to hold his support base.
John Brigge has to find his way through this tricky place. He is a relatively well-off farmer, also the public coroner and a governor of his town, but his status is made precarious by his secret, but widely suspected, Catholicism: by now the Papists are few, scattered and in fear of their lives, blamed for any and all public unrest. Even the Town Watch feels able to sport with Brigge as he tries to pass the gates.
Brigge's mindset has been shaped by the old medieval world, a world full of signs and symbols, where there is a place for everyone and everyone is in their place - he has no feel for the new Protestantism with its progress toward cold, self-interested rationality.
Brigge sometimes attempts to use his position as coroner to defend the innocent and hold the brutal to account, at other times he withdraws to his estate well removed from the town. Neither strategy works very well. Faced by Challoner's slide towards tyranny he is increasingly uneasy for himself and his family, but also sad for Challoner himself, an old friend.
The story line follows Brigge's investigation into the Irishwoman Katherine Shay, imprisoned for the death of her newborn child. The main witness, a 16-year-old girl, has not returned from a visit to relatives. He suspects involvement from one of his enemies, Richard Doliffe, and pursues the case both for justice and in the hope of bringing down his dangerous opponent.
All this is set against Brigge's personal life. His wife Elizabeth is due to give birth, after several miscarriages. Theirs is a tender relationship, complicated, however, by his affair with the girl Dorcas who lives with them. All are in pain: Brigge from guilt and confusion, Dorcas from guilt and her unrequited love for him, Elizabeth from her knowledge of the affair. Yet all manage to maintain their dignity.
The hook which threatens to draw this delicate situation into the public domain is Brigge's apprentice, Adam. He wants to marry Dorcas (who would rather remain second to Elizabeth in Brigge's heart than be Adam's wife). Making matters far worse, Adam is also caught up in the cold excitement of the puritan crackdown, which would be ample in itself for testing his loyalty to his master... and he knows of the family's secret Papist practices.
For most of the story Brigge heads ever-deeper into bewilderment and disarray. Neither personal decency nor public office can accomplish much when they do not align with one or another of the current forces in society.
While Protestants happen to be the persecutors here, the author's real targets are bigotry and tyranny. Brigge's local priest is on the run, but we get a glimpse of the man's taste for torture should he ever hold the whip hand.
The book is rich in contemporary references. Some of them are particular to the author's birthplace of Northern Ireland. As a Catholic schoolboy he was "routinely rounded up with hundreds of others by British troops and spent several years in an internment camp", according to a review by Carolyn See (Washington Post). However, sectarian hatreds do not rule out ugly alliances at elite level, and he brings that out too.
There are messages about law-and-order policies that stare you in face, but he also notes a tendency toward economic blackmail by the rich, who threaten to remove themselves from the parish if their taxes rise. When a teenage girl is flogged to death for fornication it is, again, hard to escape comparisons to events the current world, although the media tends to frame them in terms of Islam rather than poverty.
Several reviewers have discussed the difficulty faced by historical novelists in bringing out the language of the time. Kathryn Hughes (Guardian) has a particularly interesting commentary on this point, noting that Bennett uses "a language heavily inflected by the English of the King James Bible, commissioned a couple of decades before his story starts".