Saturday, May 27, 2023

The Company of Heaven by Catherine Fox

Title: The Company of Heaven,
Author: Catherine Fox
Publication: Marylebone House/SPCK Publishing, paperback, 2023
Genre: Fiction/series
Setting: Present-day England
Description: In the fifth book about the fictional diocese of Lindchester, Fox returns to her beloved characters during the third year of Covid. Along with the worry of the pandemic are moments of happiness as one of her most troublesome protagonists, Freddie, has settled down and has a new baby (albeit in an irregular relationship the nosy neighbors cannot figure out but delight in discussing). Jane Rossiter, now married to Matt and godmother to the baby, oddly named Ladybird, should be happy but is struggling with guilt due to a university student who committed suicide after she caught him plagiarizing. Those close to that student are also suffering from the helplessness of those who failed to prevent such tragedy. Matt, now Bishop of Barcup, belatedly reports an improper relationship between Freddie and the former Bishop of Lindchester, which really fails to serve any purpose except to rehash past impropriety from the first book which I have not yet read. The challenges of life in Lindchester and among its flawed inhabitants may seem implausible, but there is a universality about their experience of resuming pandemic-interrupted lives that will appeal to the reader.

My Impression: I am a huge fan of Fox’s trilogy that begins with Angels and Men so was pleased to get a chance to read this newer series, although I had previously only read book 2 so had to keep the thoughtfully-provided dramatis personae close at hand to reacclimate myself to everyone in Lindchester. The real appeal of this series is the whimsical and ironic narrator who opines on the interrelationships of the locals and on the lifting of some of the pandemic restrictions:
Above all, our eighteen-month respite from social awkwardness is at an end: we may hug one another again. This Yes is caveated with the usual No. We may hug but we are advised not to. Or if we do, we are to avert our faces, avoid breathing on one another and keep it brief. It begins to sound more like gut-barging than hugging. But we will navigate the morass of conflicting advise as best we can, armed with the legendary ‘Common Sense of the British Public’ that has served the nation so well in these difficult times.
The story is set during one liturgical year as the inhabitants of Lindchester emerge from isolation and reestablish relationships beginning in April 2021. There is less ecclesiastical discussion than in Unseen Things Above, which was mostly about the celibacy (or not) of gay male clergy and the selection of a new bishop of Lindchester. Still, the faith of those Fox writes about is part of their lives, even if they are flawed Christians (like many of us) or nonbelievers like Jane, who has learned to temper her views now that she is married to a high-ranking member of the Anglican Church.

The one challenge of the book is that Freddie Hardman-May is an unappealing and inarticulate character I disliked earlier in the series and there is so much of him in this entry. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Freddie lusts after the most obnoxious person from Angels and Men, Andrew Jacks.  There are periodic Easter eggs provided by the author that reference characters from that series.
While the obvious comparison for this series is Trollope (which I have not read for years) and the publisher also suggests Barbara Pym, the books remind me more of Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series about the Church of England in the 1930s, although Fox has far more sense of humor about her Anglicans and their intrigue. While The Company of Heaven can be read as a standalone, I think most readers will get more out of the series if they start at the beginning with Acts and Omissions, as I plan to.  I visited Durham Cathedral several years ago because of Angels and Men and some readers may wish this book were set in a real cathedral town so they could pilgrimage there.  

Source: A pdf was provided by the publisher.  The demise of Book Depository may slow down my purchases from the UK but I will catch up with the rest of the series soon.   


Cath said...

I love good church/cathedral based fiction so will look into this author. I suspect you may have recommended her to me before and when I go and check on Goodreads I'll find one of her books has been marked 'Want to read'. Which would be typical of my memory!

Susan Sanderson said...

I found it interesting to read about earlier books by Catherine Fox. The Company of Heaven is the only one I have read so far, although I am now reading Acts and Omissions.
Thank you for providing links to the other posts on the blog tour.
Sue from Sue's Trifles

CLM said...

I suggest starting with Angels and Men, which is great, although sometimes I wish she had written a prequel. There are many unanswered questions. Also, at my university, the residence halls did not mix undergraduate and graduate students so that seemed odd to me. When I visited Durham, I mostly spent time near the Cathedral and not in any university buildings so saw no one to ask.

Anonymous said...

As soon as I began reading the review, I, too, thought of the Howatch books. Will start looking for this author's work.