The story opens with the death of the heroine, Marina Proudfoot. She was a woman of both great personal and spiritual beauty, whose generous, brave and loving nature is deeply mourned by her surviving son Timothy and her priest-counsellor Father Ewan McEwan, whom she has been visiting for twenty-odd years after a horrible tragedy shattered her life in 1982 – her infant daughter and her much-loved husband both drowned. Soon we learn that Marina and Father Ewan were secret lovers, were in love, were inseparably entwined in one another, despite a fifteen year age gap. With the assistance of beautifully paced flashbacks we witness how Lady Marina Proudfoot started life as Molly O’Dowd, a beautiful young Irish girl in Oxford, chucked out by her vile mother after an unfortunate encounter with a fish porter from the covered market results in a teen pregnancy, and struggling to bring up her adored little boy Patrick. When Patrick is only five, Molly has another unfortunate encounter, this time with her mother, which results in Molly’s arrest for murder and Patrick being whisked away from her to be adopted and brought up by a kindly Scottish couple in faraway Suffolk. Their name is McEwan. We are stunned by the realisation that Patrick grows up to be Father Ewan and is in fact Marina’s long-lost son.
This knowledge is not shared by the characters, but Marina has left an explicit account of her early life for Ewan to read, and the stomach-crunching suspense of the story centres on the dread anticipation of the effect this devastating revelation will have on him. Meanwhile Timothy also has a secret lover – his best friend Roger, married to Sally, a very nice woman who deserves better. Roger and Timothy are planning to Come Out at Marina’s funeral; Sally of course already knows and is leaving to start a new job at the bereavement counselling centre run by Father McEwan. Roger is a man of awesome selfishness and boundless vitality. His inner child is very close to the surface and his attempts to control his titanic rage when his devious plans are thwarted contribute greatly to our entertainment in the present-day parts of the story. His passion for the weak and petulant Timothy, and his hatred for Marina do not prepare us for a second devastating revelation which I will not by any means spoil.
There are occasional moments when your inner critic begins to say “Hang on a minute …”, but so intense is your desire to find out what happens, or rather, why what happens happens, that you have no time or desire to listen to it, when every page delivers powerfully gripping stuff. For example, while discoursing back and forth through recent decades we are transported to the Greenham Common Embrace the Base day, to show us the steps that led the young about-to-be-ordained Ewan to pose for what became a world-famous image, Crucified Man. There are themes explored in the book that were also present in her first novel A Crowded Bed – the emotional grip of religion, the sense of guilt, the desire to hide painful secrets from early life, the catastrophic results of these secrets coming to light, the enthralling power of beauty, the enthralling power of big love – that hit home, and ground the novel with depth and sensitivity in the midst of a story that is almost over-stimulating in it succession of big events and emotional body-blows. In other words, this is a big, colourful, tasty paella of a story chock-full of delicious king prawns and chunks of spicy sausage – you are not going to be hungry again half an hour later. I loved it and unreservedly recommend it.