In a TMO interview with Australian novelist Tim Winton, the question of faith and doubt came up, and more specifically the suitability of different literary formats to deal with them.
“TMO:How much room in a novel is there for the unexplained, and the unexplainable?
Tim Winton: I think there’s plenty of room. For hinting at it, for leaving the door open for mystery. Sure. Particularly now that the novel is freed from the old constraints of naturalism. Think of works by John Crowley or Jonathan Carroll or the middle novels of Brian Moore. Or Salley Vickers, or Hilary Mantel. The difficulty is in discussing the nature of mystery, which poetry does much better, because it has in its form – mostly stripped of narrative machinery – the lightness required. All these glancing moments, images, echoes which say more with less. A song has similar advantages. “
It’s an interesting prism through which to read Brian Moore‘s strange and beautiful novel Cold Heaven, for this is – contrary, perhaps to Winton’s novel freed from naturalism – a pointed, taut, and detail heavy novel that is brimming full of mystery, to the point where the reader finishes the novel certain of the story that has been told, but completely unsure of what has actually happened.
The story revolves around two mysterious and connected events. The first, a fatal accident that befalls a cuckolded American doctor, Alex, while holidaying in the south of France, just as his wife Marie is steeling herself to announce her faithlesness and intention to leave him.
In Moore’s confident hands we enter into Marie’s guilt-ridden mind as she faces bereavement and bureaucracy, alone in a strange land. Entering into a similar narrative voice and territory as that of his earlier masterpiece ‘I am Mary Dunne‘, but that’s just the first chapter.
And the second event? A possible apparition of the Virgin Mary. A perfect backdrop for mystery, and an examination of doubt and faith (though the novel has a surprising number of subthemes including feminism, the intersection of religion and commerce, and even the cultural differences between the United States and Canada).
The best thing about the book, though, is that it’s a twist on that hoary old technique of the unreliable narrator, used to such good effect by, for example, For Madox Ford in The Good Soldier. The characters in Cold Heaven are unreliable, but unlike John Dowell, narrator of The Good Soldier (or any of the other typical examples used to demonstrate the style, like Emily Brontë.’s Lockwood in Wuthering Heights), they’re keenly aware of their own unreliability – Marie for example constantly questions her own perception:
“She felt ill, yet strangely excited. She heard again the light, innocent voices of the old nuns talking of vocations and the lack or feligious funds, a conversation far from innocent when she connected it with what had been asked of her. She had been waiting for a sign from these nuns, but perhaps she had not been brought here for that. She had been brought here so that it could be revealed to her, at last, why she was being ordered to testify.
She drove out of the convent gates onto the road. She turned right, going back toward the Point Lobos Motor Inn. Of course, she could be wrong. Perhaps it was paranoid to think of those things about the nuns. It could be coincidence that the Sisters of Mary Immaculate had a convent inthis place. It could all be in my mind. My mind, which I no longer trust.”
More to the point, though, is that the author himself hides all certainty of his own opinion. The unreliable narrator style turns on the insider joke – you know what Ford Madox Ford – or Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for that matter – thinks really happened in his story. Moore writes his novel in a vivid, detailed and concise manner, but try to find a single line that definitively tells the reader what really has happened in the novel, and you’ll draw a blank. It’s as if he wrote the novel and then went back to the begining editing out all the certainty in favour of ambiguity. All the more impressive because the language is concrete and vivid throughout, as if he were actually seeing the events in front of him.
And so, at the end of the novel you’ve no idea whether Moore was a Catholic; whether he believed in Marian visions; whether he thought of faith as a gift or a con-job. Similar to the ‘North-Korean-style atheist’ Jim Crace’s novel Quarantine, Cold Heaven is a novel that can appeal equally to the convinced believer/non-believer.