David Guterson: Our Lady of the Forest
Bloomsbury Press, November 2003
£16.99, hardback

After the success of his compelling novel Snow falling on Cedars, many will have high expectations of David Guterson. However, anyone hoping that his latest novel will be a repeat performance of his bestseller will be disappointed. This is a change of pace, but a bold and intriguing one which takes us into the tricky area of female sexuality and visions of the Virgin Mary.

In so far as it has a plot, Our Lady of the Forest tells us of a strange event, deep in the forests of Washington state, one bright November afternoon. While out picking mushrooms in the woods near the declining logging town of North Fork, a young girl sees the Virgin Mary. Slowly but inexorably, news of the vision spreads and pilgrims start to arrive.

The first person to grasp the situation is the sympathetic parish priest, Father Collins. Ill and exhausted, the young visionary, Ann, bangs on his door, and announces that he has been chosen to help her spread the message of the Virgin Mary. (NB stop reading here if you don't want to see important plot giveaways!)

Father Collins is somewhat taken aback by this, and also by the physical allure of the young visionary. He is driven into guilt by his desire for her, and by his consequent masturbatory sessions, but firmly decides to help her to the best of his abilities. His faith is most strongly put to the test when it transpires that Ann is a sexually-abused teenage-runaway with a history of hallucinogenic-drug use, and a high fever to boot, and that her frosty help-meet Carolyn is not all that she seemed to be either.

Despite her gruffness, Carolyn actually did seem to care about the young girl. But she also cared about money, and when the pilgrims started to flood into North Fork, she spotted the chance to raise some serious funds and escape to a sunny retirement in Mexico.

Tom Cross, the guilt-ridden logger who meekly petitions "Ann of Oregon", is equally confused. One look at his bird-brained ex-wife and her happy-clappy worship is enough to repel him from the Church, and yet, drowning in debt and tormented by the memory of the accident that paralysed his only son, Junior, Tom cannot help but hope for a miracle.

This is a deeply provocative book, with the power to change the way you think about life, religion and Virgin Mary apparition-spotters. Read it if you dare.

Isabel Owen 9/12/03