Author: Nick Laird
Reading Modern Gods helped me realise the human tendency to make gods out of our beliefs and how disillusioned we feel at their breakdown.
The novel begins with two men opening fire mindlessly in a pub called The Day’s End, unleashing death and mayhem.
Part I – Six Nothings introduces us to married couple Judith and Kenneth Donnelley. They have three children, Liz, Alison and Spencer. Judith suffers from a tumour, that the kids don’t know about.
Liz, never-married, is invited by the British Broadcasting Corporation to be a presenter for an episode of a documentary, The Latest of the Gods, to be featured on a religious movement in New Ulster, Papua New Guinea (PNG). A woman called Belef has combined Christianity with the local myths it has displaced to found a new movement called the Story.
At first unsure about whether she wants to do the job, Liz decides to go ahead when she learns that her much-younger boyfriend is two-timing her with a man.
Meanwhile, Alison, divorced from her first husband, the verbally abusive Bill, is now marrying the gentle Stephen.
In Part – II, In the Way that Fire Wanders, we see how things get out of hand.
On the morning after the wedding, the family learns that Stephen is one of the ruthless killers of the pub massacre. Now that her marriage is another sham, Alison begins to feel complicit in her husband’s crime.
In PNG, Liz, her producer Margo and cameraman Paolo are caught up in the conflict arising out of the pull that that both Belef and Josh and Jess Werner, the missionaries trying to bring Christianity to the locals, exert.
Even as both gods appear false, the god that is Stephen, as well as the god of Belef’s Story, Judith too realizes that her marriage is not as stable as she thinks it is.
The chapters alternate between Stephen and Alison on their honeymoon and Liz and party in PNG with Belef. Alison is playing make-believe with her husband. Liz is doing it as a TV presenter.
Additionally, in PNG, the rise of Belef’s The Story is juxtaposed against the New Truth Mission of the Werners.
The story of the Donnelleys is interspersed with short third person accounts of those who were killed at the pub. There was something touchingly sad about those lives cut short, just as you are getting to know them.
Slowly the intricacies and instabilities of the family relationships come to the fore.
Judith’s diagnosis brings her into the spotlight like an ornament gathering dust in the back of a cabinet now unexpectedly appraised at some fantastic value, and brought out to the light of the mantelpiece… But here too the dust alighted.
Liz has always felt outside the family circle, an adult in a scale model. Returning home for the wedding, she feels uncomfortable with her place in the family unit. Everything is the same, and yet not. Home was like climbing into a suit that was made of your own body, and it looked like you, and it smelled like you, and it moved its hand when you told it to, but it wasn’t you, not now.
The sisters’ relationships is a strange one. Each pities the other, but in her smug self-satisfaction of having two children and a husband, even if he is the second, Alison pities Liz harder, longer, louder.
Some lines demanded that you re-read and savour them.
The broadband in the Donnelley home is too slow. It is not feasible to download photos, not in human time. In geological time, maybe, or if you experienced the world as an oak tree did.
The description of TV producer Margo: The trick was to keep her on a casual level of intimacy, at a friendly arm’s length. If you wandered off the main road with her, you faced the real risk of being lost for some time in the outskirts of her complicated backstory… You wanted to keep her star in your orbit, but not so close as to get burned up, not so distant as to lose all light and heat.
Liz’s theory about the origin of religion is fascinating. It was no surprise that the deserts of the Middle East had given birth to the three big monotheisms. A landscape’s character directed the minds of those born in it, their imagination, their interactions with the seen and unseen. Out there in the Kansan prairies – or the wilderness of sand where Jesus fasted forty days and nights – it was just you and God under the sky, staring down the huge horizon. It was unilinear. It was strict. It was personal. The jungle spoke a different tongue. It talked of fertility, the immanence of objects, the many spirits lurking in the trees and ferns and rocks and rivers. There was constant activity, displacement. It reminded one of mortality, the endless simmer of rot and renewal. And where was her own Ireland in the system? A tidal zone. A recurrence of eternal folds. Early mist rising up like all the ghosts in the hollows of the fields.
It was interesting to have whataboutery described as Northern Ireland’s favorite form of rhetoric. I thought that was India’s invention in our current political and social climate.
Returning from PNG to Ireland, Liz tries to put the intensity of pain she has experienced behind her. How small the body felt for what it had to hold; memory and experience and pain. How continually one must fold and trim the soul.
Alison must do likewise. Her happiness is now forever clouded over by her pain. Outside the large sky was full of stars – exit wounds or promises of some greater light behind the black.
The sisters finally have something in common, the compromise that is their mother’s life. In the end, they all accept their gods, even when they turn out to be broken, because as Liz says, What fetish gods the Donnellys were! They’d stay in a marriage so as not to waste the cargo of a fondue set.
(I got a free ARC from FirstToRead).