That is how I feel about the English novelist Susan Howatch’s novels, particularly her Starbridge series (here’s a chronological list of her Starbridge series that I posted on Amazon several years ago).
It is also why I’ve read through the series three times and will re-read it again this summer. There aren’t any other works of fiction that I revisit in this way.
The last time I re-read the series I finished the last novel in a tiny cabin on Lake Michigan, shivering under the covers because it’s always freaking cold on Lake Michigan, even in the summer, and I was in the throes of the worst allergy attack of my life, as the buildup of dust and mold in the cabin from the winter was too much. The Claritins and Benadryls I popped like candy didn’t bring even the merest edge of relief, but even in that state Howatch’s storytelling kept me riveted.
The Starbridge series is a fictionalized account of some of the main players in the Church of England in the mid 20th century. That probably sounds like it would be a snooze, but it’s not.
For example, if I were to write a six word story of the first book in the series, Glittering Images, it would be: Bishop or whore? Hard to tell.
Scandals involving bishops are one of life’s constants, so it gives Howatch plenty of material to work from. The other day I read a comment thread on a blog in which someone said it’s better to be a whore than a bishop, because being a bishop has a corrosive affect on one’s personality and at least a whore is honest about what she does. There’s some wisdom in that. Power is corrupting.
Another six word story for the book could be: Image was everything. Until it wasn’t.
She uses psychology and theology to strip down the characters and get past their glittering images. As one Amazon reviewer said, reading the book was like being in her own counseling session. Another reviewer said, “With elements that would appeal to those with an interest in mystery, romance, Jungian psychology, or the spiritual life, this volume will fit well on many and diverse readers’ shelves.”
This article by Charles Howard goes into more detail about Glittering Images and how it deserves a place of prominence on his university office book shelf over his academic tomes. I also like how he ties it in to helping students find their true identity and vocation, which is timely for me as my oldest daughter graduates high school in a week.
Throughout the series you meet a variety of characters, not just clergy. There’s an atheist lawyer, a gay prostitute, a lonely single female cook who attaches herself to the leader of a healing center, which is operated by social workers, psychologists and a priest. And many more characters.
The occult, ghosts and poltergeist activity are featured in one book. A main theme throughout seems to be that healing is a process and the reader can usually identify with at least one of the struggles a character is going through.
Much to my dismay I had heard rumors over the past few years that Howatch isn’t going to write again. This post, including the comments section, confirms that. Alas. It also gives a nice summary of each of the Starbridge books. So if you’re looking for some books to read you, there you go.
Filed under: Books