A reflection on Highland author Merryn Glover's outstanding new novel A Houce called Askival.
I wonder if Merryn Glover read Ruth the Rebel when she was a child? It’s a 20th century children’s book about a young girl sent to a children’s home who finds it difficult to accept the its Christian, and in particular to forgive her mother. It was the kind of book which I was dismissive of as a teenager (perhaps unfairly) seeing it as an attempt to coat the pill of Christian propaganda with the allure of story.
Merryn Glover a writer now living working in the Highlands, has written about another rebel Ruth in A House called Askival her outstanding debut novel which has just been published. Askival, set in Uttarakhand in India spans 70 years, and three generations of an American missionary family against the turbulent background of contemporary Indian history.
The story sparkles with colour and vitality, but there is tragedy too. Ruth Connor abandons her childhood Christian faith and is estranged from her parents. But she returns to visit her father in the closing months of his life – can they, we wonder, make peace, can each bring into the open hidden things the other needs to hear? Askival is the old family home (called after the mountain in Mull), falling into decay, a place of ghosts and sadness.
Glover is a Christian; like Ruth her parents were missionaries and she went to boarding school in India; and religion in the melting pot of India’s multi-faith culture is central to the novel, but this fine work is no shallow piece of Christian propaganda. For Merryn Glover is quite simply a wonderful writer; honest, perceptive, with humour, a zest for life and a love for people and nature. She knows how to keep her readers turning the pages. At times she writes like an angel.
Key themes of her novel include relationships within families, the legacies we pass on to our children, the need (and difficulty) of granting and receiving forgiveness, bloody conflict between religions, the ways religious people can unwittingly damage their children, the strange silences of God.
As with all great books, Askival gives us in response to what we bring to it. Three things resonated particularly with me. The novel reinforced my awareness that we edit our recollection of the past, tailoring it to match our assumptions about where we are now, and how we reached this point. It reminded me of my own relationship with my father, and my awareness that though hidden things were shared between us in his final years, others, which I would love to have heard were left unexpressed.
And finally, as I read I acknowledged that something in me wishes I’d been a teenage rebel, in my case in the hedonistic sixties, rather than timidly toeing the line and trying so hard to be the kind of Christian people expected. Yet at the same time the book deepened my gratitude that I was as I was.
The boarding school in Askival was a Christian school, but attended by pupils of many faiths in a country of many faiths. Central to the novel is an exploration of how people of all religions can learn to live together in peace. There’s a colourful scene in the book where people of different faiths are sharing a meal together and talking endlessly – and in perpetually disagreement - about how religions can peaceably co-exist. But where words failed, their action - sharing a meal together, respecting one another - points the way ahead.
There is grace is the book – notably the grace which brought Ruth back from Scotland to India with her barely-recognised longing for reconciliation. And above all there is love in its pages, not the superficial talk of love which smothers unanswered questions, but the love which comes when we’ve looked at all the questions and all the issues and all the pain and recognise that nothing else will do, that the only answer is Love.
There are outstanding examples of love and acceptance in the book, notably Kip who runs a Delhi guest house, and Aziz and his son Iqbal a Muslim who has learned to love Jesus and shows a tenderness and compassion beyond all reason and a humble self-giving which leaves the self enriched.
We finish the book, and we wonder – the pain is real – but is there love like this in the real world? Can I learn the 100th name of God? Will Jesu stoop in the dance of life and wash my feet?
And another question. Does my life as a Christian read like a propaganda novel, superficial, predictable, controlled, much never making it on to the page? Or is it real: colourful, vibrant, packed with drama and conflict and the inevitable tragedy, but leavened always by the healing breath of God’s grace and by love.
A House called Askival is published by Freight Books. ISBN 978 1 908754 59 2 £14.99
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 10th July 2014)