Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Gushiest of Book Gushes: Impossible Saints by Clarissa Harwood

"Why is it that men's courage is called bravery but women's courage is called recklessness- or, even worse, foolishness?"

"That's just it, Harriet. Doesn't It bother you that we're still making the same arguments she (Wollstonecraft) made more than a hundred years ago, and so little has changed?" 
Imagine a work of fiction that helps you reconcile years of insecurity and forces you to finally confront some of the rifts between the religious traditions that informed your childhood and the views you established as a thinking, reading, hyper-sensitive, feminist-inclined adult....

Imagine this piece of fiction wrapped in a perfect historically romantic (like, honest to Pete romantic with the gushing and the kissing and the pining!)  package and bow....

 Impossible Saints by Clarissa Harwood was the best reading experience ( because, indeed, it was an experience), I have had in an age.  I was at turns giddy and shaking and smiling so wide my cheeks hurt and then crying --- because it is emotional to read a transparent transcription of all of the challenges you have encountered as a woman eager to reconcile the traditions and conservative beliefs of her childhood with the progressive views of adulthood. Part of me wishes that this novel had been around when I was 17 --trying to find myself in Catherine Marshall and Lynn Austin and Dorothy L Sayers amidst a tradition that found women largely in potluck kitchen service or on nursery duty. A worthy calling--- not my calling. Part of me wishes that when I spent the weekends at Crux bookstore at my alma matter U of T running my finger over the spines of titles on Christian Feminism and doling out a chunk of my student loan on a burgeoning new library that this had intercepted me. But part of me is so happy that it found me now--- now as a woman who has written a series that tries to exercise some of the contradictory tenets of my faith within the structure of two lady detectives wearing trou
sers and exploring women's roles in confining Edwardian times. And part of me is happy I found it now when I am a little more sure of who I am, what I believe beyond the expectations of others and beyond the traditions of my upbringing.

"I wouldn't mind being an outcast if I were free to live and work as I choose" 

I am a huge believer in the kismet that happens when the right books find the right reader. Often at odds with my strong opinionated feminist views pitted against my upbringing as a pentecostal minister's kid, I have an insatiable thirst for the dialogue and debate that pings throughout this brilliant and evocative historical treatise on faith and conviction.

And while I still muse on and try to decipher how the square peg of feminism can fit in the circular hole of the Church's long traditions books like this--- wonderfully packaged in a beautiful, excessively readable love story, there is the brilliant elasticity that allows for interaction with characters who play out all of the questions and thoughts and muddled confusions of tradition and faith and feminism on a well-worded page.

And yet if you're like: what? NO! I want to read for enjoyment! Well, Saints be Praised! You get that, too! this is a rare package of perfectly lovely prose enveloping deeper truths.

In 1907, teacher Lillia Brook re-establishes her friendship with Canon Paul Harris, a rising figure at St. John's Cathedral who helped her navigate Greek and Latin studies in her formative years-- by letter- when such subjects were deemed useless to females best honed to play angel of the hearth. Lillia and Paul's re-acquaintance in adulthood sparks from their first meeting as they encounter themselves as pendants for Women's Suffrage and the Tradition of the Church ---the quintessential male sphere-- respectively.

While Lillia becomes more deeply involved in the growing danger of the Women's Movement in a circle that includes Emmeline Pankhurst, Paul is forced to confront his comfort in the sacred symbol and tradition of the church ---communion, prayer, the solemn process of a worshipful Sunday with the worship in action met head on when he accompanies Lillia to the brutal cloisters of a penitentiary for fallen women. It is in these early chapters--- so lovingly expressed and evoking the feeling of a hot cup of tea with a dose of Masterpiece theatre on a sun-slanted weekend--- that Harwood begins to develop her deeper thesis. A startling contradiction of tradition meted against two shifting worlds that startlingly parallel ongoing conversations in the modern church.

"Miss Wells, I'm not in the least concerned about my reputation." 

A complicated love story set amidst the turmoil and transition of the shifting roles of tradition in anglo catholicism and the pressure to move worship into action beyond the pulpit paralleled with the changing course of women finally meeting their snatches and life outside the home with violence and misery! WAS THIS WRITTEN FOR ME???! A love story that intellectually and spiritually challenges the reader to confront the loop holes in their own beliefs as they sit across from Paul and Lillia who, on equal mental footing, discover themselves and their roles in each other's lives through constant debate? IS IT MY BIRTHDAY???! And romance? OH ROMANCE! clutch your heart and catch your breath romance---- sparring here is hotter than kissing and the romance Paul and Lillia find is symbolic of a marriage between a shifting church meeting head-on the demands and views of its expectant believers. So, this is not your run of the mill " Oh! he has a dazzling smile and my heart grows faint" type cliche-- though, yes, he does have a dazzling smile--yet the evocation of true attraction between two mismatched puzzle pieces that need to figure out how to tweak themselves to fit into each other's lives.

Both are forced  to put faith in action: Paul  beyond the sacraments of worship by Lillia who changes how he views worship and Lillia who opens her mind to meet him halfway.  And you know that delicious moment in books when a character realizes their true love for someone when they unwittingly step up to defend them? (Hello Bella Wilfer for John Harmon against Mr. Boffin in Our Mutual Friend) we get TONS OF THAT HERE!  WHAT BETTER TYPE OF LOVE STORY IS THAT THAN BETWEEN PEOPLE WHO ALLOW THEIR HEARTS TO BE CHANGED and are willing to reconsider convictions that, to this point in their lives, were etched in stone?  

( I know, I know, so many caps ---but I cannot contain my enthusiasm here!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! If I were sitting across from you my hands would be excessively flailing)

Their compromise and eventually synchronicity  encourages growth as two people willing to shift their stubborn views to let some leeway. A treatise on the changes modernizing an era where everyone's roles were falling away and a new type of woman ( and man ) strode to find equal footing.  And Harwood does this ingeniously-- -quietly--- thoughtfully--- with little  crumbs in the narrative: the pipes of the masculine sphere in Lillia's boarding house, the importance of Paul's given name in contrast to the historical part that spoke for women's silence--- all of these little notes strung throughout ... ugh! so goooood!  I die, Horatio... 


What we sometimes forget about the power of fiction is how it can be used as a mirror or lens to our experiences and preconceptions. More still, how it can be the bind that helps us reconcile our past. When you view the world through the lens of fictional emblems it becomes a safe space to be mentally engaged, spiritually moved, and challenged to change. There is a balm in the constraints of fiction that allow your mind and heart to roam free in a way you might not confront what the fiction offers in real life or conversation. Is fiction a mode of conversation, of course---- but it is something silent and ruminative and in Impossible Saints I watched the war between my Christian upbringing and beliefs and my feminist views rile on the page in Paul and Lillia.

"I can see you've placed me in the category of the fast, modern woman, and there I'll stay until I can prove to you I'm a real person."

It takes a lot for a book to resound echoes long after the constructs of its time period, but Impossible Saints is relevant. Relevant to anyone who is shaped by expectation, latches to tradition while still at odds with the convictions that force us to grapple with the malleability of theological tenets and basic human principles. It is really brilliant to have this sewn up within the pattern of a novel and makes it accessible for readers who struggle and yearn to be challenged with their entertainment. For as much as I would love to posture about the higher tenets of this book's grappling with spiritual, philosophical and humane truths, so I am always reminded of how friggin' ENJOYABLE the whole darned thing is. Because, seriously, beyond the awesome discovery that it would hit me like the best kind of anvil, its time period and subject are TOTAL RACHEL CATNIP! I walked out of the film Suffragette a few years ago feeling flat--- like it was an open pop left out and devoid of fizz--- but all that I wanted it to be is resplendent here in a flesh and blood and contradictory heroine. I finish an episode of Grantchester wishing that the dominant male sphere would be countered more by feminine influence beyond the wishy-washy turn ups of fashionable Amanda--- and I find it here as Paul's mind broadens and stretches with Lillia's influence.

I often cite Catherine Marshall's Christy as a true love story: thinking of how agnostic doctor Neil MacNeill challenges Christy to believe for herself beyond the expectations or platitudes of the Mission. It is in this that he shows true love and devotion: interested in hearing her as more than a mouthpiece, wanting a peek inside. Here ,we have two people who through danger, loss and strife are willing to sacrifice and meet in the middle after many (exceptionally well-written) snapshots into their debates. As they verbally spar, so you might very well meet new thoughts and ideas that will encourage you to put the book aside and work things out for a little bit. At one point in the novel, an unhappily married woman repeatedly calls " all men cowards" -- cowards who must rise or work and strive to raise themselves up in church or society --- And yet Harwood's book proves the opposite of that again and again in two characters who are shaped in the truest form of courage there is --willing to stumble and fall and admit fallacy, willing to sacrifice moments of dignity and pride in order to find a surer footing with each other and with the higher plains they subscribe to. Write me this romance again and again, world, for it is not only the romance between two people finding a lasting and heart-clenching love but the romance in finding a surer belief in ones instincts when acting on conviction beyond human or church expectations.

I have an equal readership of faith based readers and non and while I am speaking to this book as it pertains to my faith experience, rest assured that it is not a prerequisite. This can be read as a whizbang- good- snap -crackle -and- pop story of historical romance which just happens to pair two people at odds with each other and one of these odds is Paul's life as a clergyman. You don't need a lexicon or even to believe to enjoy. Moreover, it offers a succinct and troubling look at the brutality and intolerance facing the women who sacrificed their livelihood and comfort for a greater cause.

There are the books you want to hand out to people so that they can understand your heart and mind and the vulnerable pieces of yourself and your strengths and weaknesses. .... hand them out at Christmas with a little bow and a card that says "here, steal inside my heart for a moment." And this is that book. This is one of those thumb-printed on my heart and mind and resolve and more especially interwoven into the fabric of my reading life forevermore.

So I will forever be grateful to a casual facebook chain where a friend tagged me in a post about this book (the post by another author I fangirl over--- Jennifer Delamere) because this is just.... ack! I cannot even form complete and cohesive sentences anymore... just make sure you preorder this book and read it and think about it and mull on it and then revisit it. ....I know I will --- interred again and again into my perennial collection....


Lillia had never given much thought to his physical appearance. Indeed, there was nothing remarkable about it--- except when he smiled. And she realized, now, when he preached. It was as if the cathedral was his natural setting, the only place where a rare, powerful illumination could blaze out from inside him. The man and his setting were equally beautiful. 

They lived in two different worlds that were more often than not hostile toward each other.

I don't know if you realize how lucky you are.You're free. No man has a claim on you. No man has conquered and enslaved you mentally, physically, or spiritually. You're not free from all struggle and suffering--of course, you must feel lonely, you must have desires-- but you haven't bound yourself to a man you'll come to despise. 

Men don't want to be married to stupid or vacuous women

I'm starting to become suspicious of your motives for becoming a priest. Your position is too convenient an excuse for breaking rules that ordinary people must abide by.

He sent me copies of his lessons and corrected my mistakes. I may be the only woman in Britain with an education from one of the best public boys' schools. 

pre-order 10 copies for your book club here (DO IT!-- need discussion questions? heck! I'll write them for free) 
[pre-order another 5 copies for all of your friends and family afterward]

Add it to your Goodreads "to read" shelf so you don't forget ( as if I would let you forget--- I won't--- I will be back in December reminding you ) 

and thanks thanks thanks to Pegasus and Netgalley for this ARC 


Carrie Fancett Pagels said...

Sounds like an amazing piece of literature, Rachel! Thanks for taking the time to do this in-depth review and share it with us. Blessings!

Cordially Barbara said...

I'm putting it onto my Goodreads list now. I think it will be a good read for sure. Oh, hey. Have you read Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey? I imagine that you have since you're talking about trying to make sense of being a feminist as well as dealing with a conservative upbringing, but I immediately thought of this book as I was reading your thoughts on this novel.

Rachel said...

@Cordially Barbara

yes, I have followed Sarah Bessey quite closely. Quite enjoyed that book :-)

Courtney Clark (The Green Mockingbird Blog) said...

I finally read this gushing review of yours! It's on my TBR "officially" now. And here's one more thing to love about fiction: I think you and I have contrasting views in some ways (I'm the one who was raised and happily stayed conservative in every sense of the word :) ) (but still yay for feminism in lots of ways) but I love how we have overlapping tastes in story and such and THIS IS HOW FICTION BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER. :) And I'm anxious for this "peek" inside your brain through the reading of this story some time.