Genre

Historical Fiction

Audience

11th grade and Up

Author’s Worldview

Catholic

Year Published

2011

Themes

Modernity, WWII, WWI, nuns, priests, priesthood, vocations, prayer, intercessory prayer, saints, suffering, end of times

 

Reviewed by

A.R.K. Watson

This novella is comprised of a collection of fictional letters sent by a man in England to his friend in Europe at the start of the 20th century. The first few letters mostly revolve around descriptions of Miss Magdalen Montague, for whom the writer carries a deep romantic admiration. But let’s be frank here: the writer is a stalker, and not the innocent, awkward kind. It is clear that he is the sort of rebellious person who takes pride in debauchery and irreverence, and who bears a superstitious level of animosity toward anything holy or pure.

His overblown grief and outrage when his object of obsession enters a Catholic convent is, therefore, difficult not to enjoy.

It will be clear to the Catholic reader that Magdalen’s prayers and intercession continue to haunt this man for the rest of his life. Just when his despair leads him to a state that hints at demonic oppression, he miraculously finds his way into the arms of the Church he once despised. The letters between him and his still stubbornly heretical friend become more spaced out as his conversion strains their friendship. Still, these letters trace the two men’s paths as they encounter one, then two, world wars. Much like in her novel, A Bloody Habit, Nicholson starts out making us laugh at her protagonists, but by the end we are instead moved to grief for their sufferings. The whole story is a beautiful meditation on the lies and temptations of modernity, and how we as Christians and Catholics encounter the world and keep faith when it feels as though the world is going to end. Reading this on the heels of a global pandemic was oddly comforting. If you need something short and entertaining to refill your cup with hope, this little novella is an excellent choice.

Having read her book, A Bloody Habit, I was already familiar with Nicholson’s talent for the tone and style of writing common in pre-20th century England, and I was not disappointed. If you are a fan of Victorian literature, Chesterton, or any of the Inklings, you will find this an enjoyable story, with prose on par with the quality of Lewis or Tolkien. Protestant Christian readers may find this just as beneficial if they have no aversion to loving descriptions of Mary. However, this is probably not the best book to give to a secular friend who hasn’t yet clued into the pitiable comedy of many modern heresies. But for Catholics, Nicholson is the very voice of ironic and cathartic humor.

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