Steer clear of religion, readers don’t like it. This was the advice given to me a dozen years ago by one of those apparently market-savvy literary consultants who advise writers hoping to find a publisher for their novel.
I can see that anything smacking of a bossy moral tale, written in heavy-handed religious language, is to be avoided. None of us like being preached at. But a novel without any moral vacillation in the minds of characters, with no reference to anything beneath the surface of life, sounds very dull indeed.
It’s a good thing American author Elizabeth Strout doesn’t listen to such bad advice. Her novel Abide with Me is all about the inner struggles of a New England pastor, following the death of his young wife. It’s certainly not an instant attention grabber; it’s some pages in that the reader might fall in love with the extraordinary luminous quality of the writing. And it’s sharp stuff, as biting as its setting of long dark winters and brief hot summers; occasionally shocking or grimly humorous. Nothing flowery or sentimental here.
Gradually in a series of vivid scenes the reader is led inside the head of not just the hero but his mute five-year-old daughter, and members of the close-knit congregation dealing with their own griefs and disappointments. The ending is one of redemption and hope – at least for some.
But clearly some readers miss the point – or would agree with that literary consultant, that religion in books is essentially boring. Among the many admiring reviews of Abide with Me, I came across the following: “The narrator’s folksy tone does nothing to enliven this dispiriting story; the overall effect is rather like listening to a slightly cantankerous maiden aunt dispensing local gossip.” It all proves the point that we look for – and find – very different things in the novels we read, and really this can only be a good thing.