4 out of 4 stars
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A Particular Friendship, by Paul Van Der Spiegel, is the fourth book in the author’s The Queer Testament series. It’s a fictional work that tells the story of Father Thomas Morton, a gay, middle-aged Catholic priest working in the English diocese in which he grew up. The title of the book refers to Tom’s relationship with his friend and former lover, Antony. It is an echo of the term one character in the story uses to describe the friendship of St Francis of Assisi and a man many scholars have identified as his romantic partner.
Bussell is a fictional former coal mining and mill town in the north of England. With its undercurrent of homophobic attitudes, it’s a tough place to grow up gay. It’s also tough to be a gay priest in a faith that condemns homosexuality even while so many of its own clergy are gay. The narrative centers on Tom’s struggle to reconcile his sexual orientation with his religious beliefs and the homophobia of so many within his own social and professional circles. It’s also about one man’s struggle to be true to himself. His friend Antony urges him to come out of the closet. Should he be honest and declare his sexuality, or should he continue to hide his real nature for fear of condemnation? In the end, Tom must choose a side.
I enjoyed this book on several levels. As someone brought up in the Catholic faith, I recognized and felt comfortable with the author’s frequent use of Catholic liturgy and prayers. Reading the words of a Latin hymn, I was transported back many years and found myself humming a tune I thought I’d long ago forgotten. The author’s use of these words of worship not only adds realism to the narrative but also provides a framework for the dialectic between characters on moral and spiritual issues.
I found that dialectic interesting. That doesn’t mean the book is a cold, intellectual exercise. The characters are fleshed out, their various storylines are given the attention they deserve, particularly the relationship between Tom and Antony. This is aided by how the book is structured. The narrative moves between Tom’s life as a younger person and his life in the present. We not only see Tom grow and mature but also other characters in the story, too. The result is a tale spanning decades that successfully fuses past and present into one seamless narrative.
The book has undoubtedly been professionally edited. I found a handful of minor errors, mostly to do with the use of apostrophes, but these weren’t enough to distract me or spoil my enjoyment of the story.
I am happy to award this book four out of four stars. It is an intelligent novel that challenges the world’s attitude to gay people and, more specifically, the attitude of traditional, conservative Christian churches to same-sex relationships. I recommend this book to readers who like their fiction to address big issues like God, life, and human nature. It has at its core a gay love story, so people who are uncomfortable with same-sex relationships might be wise to pass on this. The book also contains strong language and sex scenes, so it’s not a suitable read for children.
A Particular Friendship
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