Saturday 28 November 2020

The Gospel of Eve by Rachel Mann

The Gospel of Eve
by Rachel Mann
A book review


Ever since Donna Tartt burst on the literary scene with The Secret History, any novel featuring a closely-knit, secretive group of students is inevitably compared to Tartt’s darkly brilliant debut.  The Gospel of Eve, by Rachel Mann, is no exception. However, for once, the comparisons are both justified and well-deserved.  Mann’s debut stands out from the competition in not being set in just any other school or university, but in Littlemore College, an Anglican seminary just outside Oxford where ordinands prepare to become priests.  The events described take place in 1997 (there is a reference to the funeral of Princess Diana) at a time when women had just been accepted to the Anglican priesthood.

The novel starts in medias res, with the narrator Catherine “Kitty” Bolton discovering Evie – her fellow ordinand, friend and erstwhile lover –  hanging from “a low beam in the chapel…the weak January light [bleeding] through the East Window giving her body a ghostly glow”.  More than two decades later, and now a respected priest “the best part of fifty”, Kitty revisits the circumstances leading to the death of Evie. This tragedy is linked to an exclusive group of students whom Kitty and Evie frequented at the college, all of whom were “disciples” of Professor Albertus Loewe.  Loewe is conservative in approach, but encourages his students’ enthusiasm for the Middle Ages, even when it ventures into dubious and dangerous territory.

The Gospel of Eve is a Gothic delight, its plot made up of dark twists and turns. One can imagine Mann with a twinkle in her eye, having her narrator repeatedly hinting at mysteries which will be revealed – Kitty is, of course, recounting the story with the benefit of hindsight, whereas we readers are made painfully aware that we are yet to be initiated into the protagonist’s dark knowledge.    Suffice it to say that the word “secret” is used twenty-nine times in the novel (I checked on Kindle…), and Mann does a great job at building a twilit atmosphere, heavy with the musty smell of old manuscripts brimming with esoteric knowledge.  Indeed, I was also reminded of Eco’s The Name of the Rose, not least because of the novel’s erudite references: in case you were wondering, The Gospel of Eve really existed, as did other rare books mentioned.  

Beyond the naughty fun (by the end we’re edging towards grand guignol), Rachel Mann, an Anglican priest and theologian, delves into serious themes and concerns: such as the nature of faith and vocation, the thin line which divides sainthood from obsession, and how essentially good people can turn into misguided monsters and abusers.  Kitty is herself a symbol of this ambivalence.  Despite bearing the scars of the horrific events at Littlemore, she refuses to renounce to her memories of what was, in some ways, the best time of her life.  The Gospel of Eve can be read as the guilty confession of a person who sees herself as both victim and abuser, a tragic figure worthy of classic Gothic literature.    

Kindle Edition

Published October 29th 2020 

Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd

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