Thursday, 17 May 2001

Catherine Fox: The Benefits of Passion (1997)

Edition: Hamish Hamilton, 1997
Review number: 824

Like Fox's debut novel, Angels and Men, her second is set at Anglican theological college Coverdale in Durham. Although it is meant to be ten years later, it is as though little has changed.

Annie Brown is training for ordination, but is more interested in the novel she is secretly writing than in her studies. Into it she puts her real feelings, has characters act in ways she wants to act but doesn't dare to, and in it she includes parts of the characters around her that she finds interesting. At the same time, she is trying to sort out her ambivalent feelings for Will, a friend of one of the other ordinands, and towards her vocation.

The novel's main failing is that it is rather too much like Angels and Men; many of the characters are very similar (and I don't just mean Johnny and Mara, common to both books). The central characters in both novels, for example, spends a lot of their time as some kind of creative artist rather than in their studies. The background of the theological college in the late twentieth century is rather limited, and it would be interesting to see what Fox could do with a different subject.

The major difference between The Benefits of Passion and Angels and Men - and one of its chief merits - is that it is much funnier. There is a fair amount of humour in the earlier novel, too, but here it is brought out far more. Joking is an important part of Annie's life, both external and internal. What has been jettisoned to make space for this and for the excerpts from Annie's novel - Mara in Angels and Men is an artist, which takes less space to describe - is dramatic background; the path Annie has travelled to where she is now is far less traumatic than Mara's. (She does, however, have a mother who must be one of the most awful in fiction.)

Angels and Men was exceptional; The Benefits of Passion is extremely good and very funny.

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