Alison is getting married for the second time. After an abusive first marriage to an alcoholic, she is confident that quiet, thoughtful Stephen will be a good dad to her two kids. She knows he has a difficult past but has resisted enquiring about it, happier to let sleeping dogs lie. She worries about what her older sister Liz will make of him, and of her: Alison has never left the small town she grew up in and still works at her father’s estate agency. She worries what her sister will make of Stephen and this dull life she’s made for herself.
Liz’s family had downsized their role in her life since she left home, of course, but not in the way she’d expected. They were like a village she had once lived in that had been shrunk down to miniature. The relationships didn’t loosen to old friendships; they contracted over the years, but retained all the same angles and shapes, the same functions of shame and despair and joy. It was like a scale model she lived in – and it still functioned. The little train ran, the signs swung outside the little shops, tiny people went from room to room, turning on and off the lights. Interacting with her family was like entering the village as an adult – outsized, and trying to crawl under the arches and bridges and flyovers, trying not to put one’s size-fives in the miniscule flowerbeds.
Liz is in her thirties, independent, a college professor teaching in New York City. The very day she’s supposed to fly home for Alison’s wedding, she walks in on her live-in boyfriend in bed with another man. Single and in her thirties, she feels as though her life is stalling. The offer to present a BBC documentary on a new religion that has sprung up in Papua New Guinea, on an island called New Ulster, is a welcome lifeline.
The two sisters form the heart of this novel, which throws up a lot of interesting ideas on religion, Over in New Ulster, Liz is torn between the New Truth Mission, represented by Josh Werner and his family, and the Story’s new movement led by the Werner’s former nanny, Belef. On the face of it, Belef is a grieving woman who feels lied to by the church, but Liz is shaken by several things she hears while in the village. The Werners are also far from sympathetic, Josh so desperate to quash Belef’s influence that he uses her daughter’s grave as a battleground. There is always a subtle threat of violence, both in Liz’s expectations of what PNG is, and in the actions and words of the people she meets.
Back in Northern Ireland, Alison is forced to confront the real identity of her new husband. The man who is so patient with her children has a darker past than she could have imagined. Even as she berates herself for sticking her head in the sand, she carries on, going through with a honeymoon where they are pleasantly civil to one another. It is only when she overhears Stephen telling his side of the story, to a neutral observer, that she begins to understand exactly what it is that he’s done.
This scene, with Alison in the next room and Stephen recounting his upbringing, is perhaps a little clumsy though I understand why it was easier to put his story across in this way. It’s a matter of fact retelling that attempts to explain Stephen’s actions as a younger man, a man who he says no longer exists. Elsewhere I felt that the clashing of religion was done in a more subtle way, events in PNG coming to a head after a strange hallucination scene that leads to Liz’s expulsion from the New Truth’s trust and forces their hand. The tragedy here was more simply drawn, though no less brutal.
In some ways, having the two locations interspersed kept the pace going. I did find the PNG section more vibrant but perhaps that is mainly because of the contrast with the more low-key scenes as Alison and Stephen try to move on while refusing to confront their main issue. I also felt that both Alison and Liz changed for the better during the course of the novel and there was a satisfying resolution. This book looks at difficult topics and yet remains an enjoyable read that kept me interested throughout. There are light moments as well as dark. Perhaps at times I would have liked a little more of the darker side, especially when it came to Stephen, but overall I think the balance was well-judged.