Friday, August 29, 2008

mostly final thoughts on "The Church on the Island"

I’m trying to walk a fine line between giving a sense of what a story or a novel is about and turning a review into a plot summary. In that effort I’ve begun to dial back on plot summary. The problem is that I’m not sure this always works, especially if I don’t spend enough time then talking about what works and doesn’t work in a story.

My review of “The Church on the Island” never quite satisfied me. I don’t think I really got at what bugged me about the story, except to say that it didn’t work.

And yes, this post is partially driven by Jonathan McCalmont’s comment, but I was also thinking about this before I read that comment.

After Charlotte meets the priest she thinks about leaving the island. Given that this is a greasy, smelly, sort of scary looking priest, I just don’t know why Charlotte didn’t get the hell off the island. Instead, she follows the priest as he gives her a tour of the island and the church and informs Charlotte of her new duties. And she accepts this!

Unsworth’s story just assumes the inevitability of what is to come next, as if there was no other choice. The moment Charlotte decides that it is time to leave the island and not spend the rest of her life as a caretaker for the church performing daily ritual to keep the “darkness” at bay, the priest tells her that she is already forgotten, that in another day all traces of her life will have been erases from existence.

Perhaps this is the “horror” of the story, that by stepping foot in the church Charlotte will never be able to leave.

It feels like a cop-out, like a cheap way of telling the story. I don’t have a better option, but the choices Unsworth made simply do not work for me.

There are some interesting ideas about darkness and the true role of the church is to keep a manifest darkness out of the world. That there should be caretakers in those entrance points for darkness. Those interesting ideas would be a different story. Here they are overwhelmed by too many descriptions of the church and the flat out assumption by the author that this is the only way the story could play out, that once Charlotte set foot on the island her life was over. A stronger story might still have that sense of inevitability but that inevitability would “feel” like a natural extension of the story, that there really was no other choice. “The Church on the Island” feels like Unsworth is forcing the story.

I’m still banging my head against the story, but hopefully this explains my issues better.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I see what you mean, but it still sounds like an interesting story to me. I'm going to have to put At Ease with the Dead on reserve.