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The Catholic novel has always occupied a precarious position. Most pious novels are of mediocre quality, while the solidly literary works (those of Graham Greene and Francois Mauriac, for example) are often ambiguous in their views on doctrine and morals.
Even those few works that combine literary merit with doctrinal and moral orthodoxy are rarely regarded highly. Most critics ignore or despise any overt Catholicism, particularly in modern fiction, while educated Catholics tend to regard novels as less important than the great works of apologetics, history and social comment.
Nevertheless, the last century has produced many novels on the lives of saints, from the Christian soap operas of Taylor Caldwell to the great political-military-religious histories of Louis de Wohl. There have also been lives of fictional saints, notably Georges Bernanos' Under the Sun of Satan.
The best Catholic fiction attempts to portray the drama of sin and sanctity, damnation and salvation, fought out on the battlefield of the human soul. However, it is much easier to depict evil than sanctity. Portraying a saint is one of the most difficult of a writer's tasks, as holiness is almost always unconvincing. This is what makes Michael O'Brien's book so remarkable.
A Cry of Stone is the fifth book in O'Brien's series, "Children of the Last Days", though it can be read independently. It is a work of honesty, great insight and powerful originality. In my view it confirms O'Brien as not only the premier Catholic novelist of our time but one of the greatest writers now living, even if the literary establishment continues to ignore him.
He is also the only author I know who is more successful in depicting good than evil. His subject, Rose W?bos, is one of the most extraordinary and memorable characters in modern fiction. A native of the Anishinabe people of northern Canada, she is a young woman with a deformed spine, described as "a four-foot-high, brown-skinned, hunchbacked woman whose hair was completely gray but whose eyes and expression were those of a child." (p.629) She has an unshakeable and uncompromising faith, a powerful but unique mystical sense, an ability to read characters, and a heart on fire with love for Christ. She is, in every sense, a saint.
Rose experiences within herself the confrontation between the modern world and the Catholic Faith, a conflict in which the Faith ultimately wins, not in any triumphalistic or argumentative sense, but simply through humility and love. Yet her life is, to all outward appearances, a failure; she calls herself a "nothing-person".
She is a tremendously gifted artist, but artistic success eludes her because her paintings are too demonstrably Catholic - a situation familiar to many artists and writers in recent years.1 However, she uses her failure to develop a spirituality based on art:
She was only a little charcoal stick in the hands of the Beloved. If not her, then another twig would have been sufficient for his purposes. (p. 581)
A Cry of Stone bears up very well against other novels about artists, such as Patrick White's The Vivisector: O'Brien has much more to teach us, and his certainty is more compelling than White's blind striving for mystical experience. Despite her failures and her deformities, Rose is far more human and more inspiring than White's Hurtle Duffield.
Is this a great novel? Many would think not. It is a long book with a rambling plot. Major characters disappear, others are introduced late and then seem to go nowhere. Among much writing of great beauty, there are some tiresome passages.
But O'Brien has achieved something unique: he has not only created a completely original saint but he has shown her from the inside: her thoughts and prayers and her stumbling yet unremitting path toward sanctity. With consummate skill, he combines Rose's Christian and non-Christian traditions in a synthesis that completely avoids syncretism. He shows us how the pagan insight into spiritual realities is not extinguished by Faith but is utterly transformed by the loving hand of God. Along the way, he drags Rose through many painful realities - racism, child abuse, betrayal, untimely death - but always with great sensitivity and yet a minimum of sentimentality. Paradoxically, the result of the complexity of her experience is a character of wonderful simplicity.
Surely this constitutes greatness.