Murder, mystery, martyrdom, and Imelda's shoes.

Imelda Marcos cameo

An investigator is sent  to the Phillipines to examine the life of a Catholic priest murdered by Communist insurgents during the Marcos era. Was he a saint? A portrait emerges of a priest struggling with questions of faith in a corrupt world.

The Breath of Night, by Michael Arditti (Arcadia Books)

- Review by Christian House, The Independent

It is a peculiarity of human nature to latch on to a disconcerting detail as an emblem of a greater tragedy. In the case of the Marcos regime, it is not the atrocities of martial law or the bludgeoning of the poor, but rather Imelda's shoes.

In Michael Arditti's novel, The Breath of Night, that infamous footwear gets a walk-on part but so too does a legion of other raw juxtapositions where silver and slum live cheek by jowl.

Arditti has set out to explore the complexities of religious faith, in particular Catholicism, in this morally compromised environment through the dramatic prism of a mystery.

His hapless detective is Philip Seward, a failed art expert and jobbing cultural critic in present-day London. Several years after his fiancée, Julia, is killed in a car crash, Philip is called to her family seat, Whitlock Hall.

At this grand Durham pile, he is presented with an unusual commission by her parents, Isabel and Hugh Olliphant. In the 1970s, Julia's great-uncle, Julian Tremayne, had settled in the Philippines as a Catholic priest tending to a rural community under the Marcos cosh.

It was a calling that culminated with his murder at the hands of Communist insurgents. Now Julian is the subject of a positio, the investigation into the validity of his canonisation. Which is where Philip comes in: the Olliphants want a man on the ground to see how Rome is getting on.

Landing in Manila, he is first hit by the pulverising heat and then the bureaucracy of Church and State. As Philip interviews Julian's parishioners and fellow priests, a picture emerges of a man in the throes of a crisis of faith, a portrait which sharpens through our reading of Julian's letters from the time.

As the dictatorship became increasingly abhorrent, we find evidence of Julian's struggle with the constraints of peaceful protest. Arditti's effective structural scaffolding, with its subjective viewpoints in each time-frame, creates a dark jigsaw piecing together a study of what it means to possess a profound religious belief in a corrupt world.

There emerges a distinction between Church and faith akin to that between stage and talent. Yet there are no cheap shots at the Catholic Church, rather a litany of valid questions.

Read full review: The Breath of Night, by Michael Arditti (The Independent)

More reviews:

Review: The Breath of Night, By Michael Arditti (The Spectator)

Related coverage: Michael Arditti: why I write fiction about faith (The Guardian)

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