9 August 2015
‘There are no words for this that are comfortable. Say you believe in God to an atheist and you’ll meet with scorn. Some people you speak to will mentally drop your IQ by fifty points. Some will instantly cease to respect you. There is a prevalent belief that faith is delusional…’
Ros Barber, Devotion
“There are no proofs for the existence of the God of Abraham,” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972). “There are only witnesses.”
I must admit to a strong bias here, inasmuch as I became convinced a quarter of a century ago that, whatever the relative doctrinal truth of the world’s major religions, there IS a spiritual component to reality, that this material plane is NOT everything there is. So you must take that into account when I say that the final fifty pages of Devotion represent the most thrilling fictional experience I’ve had for many years.
And as a work of fiction, this is very accomplished; a markedly different beast from Ros Barber’s award-winning all-verse The Marlowe Papers, it nevertheless displays a distinctly poetic sensibility in its prose. The prologue, for example, is a piece of wordplay not too far removed from some of the passages in Barber’s first book, almost suggesting a transitional passage between the two. As with (for example) Lawrence Durrell, this can be slightly distracting, as one is aware that this is ‘fine writing’, sometimes to the extent that it pulls one away from the event or emotions being described, but either I or the book (I suspect it was me) settled down very quickly and simply got involved in the story and the characters. It’s already been observed that the central character, Dr Finlay Logan, is not entirely sympathetic, but the book presents him as he is, without overt judgement (he judges himself, which is a different matter; and Barber certainly understands male lust) and in this it reminds me somewhat of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which enfolded all its characters in a blanket of understanding and compassion. Hence, even the apparently unredeemable April Smith, bus-bombing murderer of several of her peers, is shown to have suffered an ordeal which might reasonably unhinge anyone, even as Logan walks through the enveloping darkness brought on by the death of his daughter.
Simply as a piece of art, then, this is very very good, even if there will be minor aspects of the craft or creation that will trouble some (in my case, not being entirely sure how the posited NetSpex would work, being as far as I can tell far too close to the eyes to be properly focussed on). The characters are well-realised, always the most important factor in allowing a reader to immerse themselves, and the necessarily grim atmosphere is lightened by flashes of humour. And cunningly, Barber, after discussing the wave/particle duality concept of quantum physics, allows herself a similar duality in the novel’s ending, a la Sliding Doors (which accounts for the peculiarity you will spot if you look at the book’s contents page). This may keep those on the non-believing side of the fence from getting irate, as they can choose their own preferred ending – but I know which of the two reverberates most with me.
Simply put, the final section of the book represents one of the finest depictions of what might be called ‘enlightenment’ that I can remember reading. Its impact on me was similar to that of Hesse’s Siddhartha. Anyone who has read Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations With God series will also find much that rings true to them; although, from an objective point of view, Barber leaves the actual existence of ‘God’ open to question (and the book challenges the anthropomorphic conception of a deity from the outset), the attitudes and actions of those who undergo the fictional ‘process’ are echoed in spiritual literature from all ages and all traditions. This is the greatest strength of the book, for me; it brought back to me the sense that the universe is supremely beautiful, even when it doesn’t appear so from our human perspective. Nothing written here diminishes or dismisses human suffering, or shies away from reality (the point is made, once explicitly, and also implicitly by the structure of the book, that what you believe makes no real difference) – it simply places suffering as part of a larger web that has patterns none of us are able to see.
My own spiritual experience is almost non-existent, but I have been able to glimpse, through the (many many many) accounts of others, the great scriptures, and the occasional moment of personal clarity (what psychologist Abraham Maslow called Peak Experiences) the possibility of seeing creation as a thing of unalloyed beauty. I believe this to be a truer vision of how things are than the one that is generally accepted. Ros Barber has shown it to me again, when I was on the verge of forgetting, and this, above all, is why I’ll go back to this book again, very soon.
TL:DR If you like well-written fiction – great prose, well-delineated characters, intelligent debate and good structure – then you won’t go far wrong with this. If you have a background in spiritual exploration, it could be the best piece of fiction you’ve read for a very long time.