An old preacher with heart disease is writing a letter to his young son. He recounts the story of his life and his family and tries to explain himself, while at the same time offering advice.
His father was the preacher in town before him and his grandfather before that, though they were very different characters and almost always argued. He married and had a wife and child who died and then, in his sixties, married again to have the little boy to whom he is writing. His boyhood friend grew up to become preacher in a neighbouring church and have a rather larger family of whom was a boy of mischief with a bad reputation who got into trouble and had to leave town.
Then half way through the book this boy returns. And the narrator is afraid that this bad boy will, from pure devilry and spite, steal his wife and child after he has died.
A book which raises profound moral questions narrated by a saint who struggles to be good.
I thought that it was beautifully written but not very exciting. There were mysteries that drove me on. What exactly was the nature of the feud between the narrator's grandfather and his father? What exactly had the bad boy done? It wasn't much to motivate but the reward was perfect prose.
And then, at the very end, in the only bit that is arranged as a separate chapter, we discover at least some of the truth. And in the last two pages there were tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. It was one of those books that had none of the superficial gaudinesses but will linger as a taste at the back of my throat for years.
- “It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over.” (p 6)
- “That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people coming to your study and tell you the most remarkable things.” (p 6)
- “There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness.” (p 7)
- “You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and then might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” (p 8)
- “It seems to me that some people just go round looking to get their faith unsettled.” (p 27)
- “He was always trying to help somebody birth a calf or limb a tree, whether they wanted him to or not.” (p 41)
- “I've developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books that I ever had time to read” (p 45)
- “I don't know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn't spent almost eight decades walking around in it.” (p 76)
- “These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.” (p 112)
- “Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay.” (p 114)
- “I remember in those days loving God for the existence of love and being grateful to God for the existence of gratitude.” (p 233)
- “The word ‘preacher’ comes from an old French word, predicateur, which means profit.” (p 267)
- “As I have told you, I myself was the good son, so to speak, the one who never left his father's house ... I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained. And that's all right. There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and then need not be .” (p 272)
Beautiful. 282 pages. January 2018