The reality behind the mask

I remember seeing Susan Howatch’s name on bestselling novels many years ago when I was considerably younger than I am now. I think this might be why I picked up Glittering Images at a charity shop but, in truth, I can’t remember why as it has been lingering on my to-be-read pile for so long I cannot recollect when and where I acquired it. I had no idea of what it might be like when I started to read it and was surprised how much I enjoyed it – obviously my past self anticipated this !

This novel is unusual for me in that it is set in the Church of England and deals with spirituality, theology, religious institutions and mental health. Of course there are books which do this but they are not common and I haven’t read many of them. The nearest I can think of is The Thorn Birds (see my review here) although that related to the Roman Catholic church in Australia. The author has set this book in the 1930s when the church and popular culture in England were possibly more connected than they are now. I don’t think that you need any faith to understand and appreciate this book but you do need to understand the basics of how the Church of England and its hierarchy works.

Charles Ashworth is an up and coming young cleric. He is a favourite of the Archbishop of Canterbury and is asked by him to investigate the Bishop of Starbridge who may, or may not, have a mistress living in his home with himself and his wife. The Archbishop is worried about the way that the situation looks and possible reputational damage to the church. As Ashworth begins to investigate it becomes obvious that he has fallen for the young woman in the situation but that because he has feelings for her he wants her to remain unattainable because he doesn’t think that he deserves her. Slowly his mental health begins to break down and he, and the reader, begins to understand that the face he presents to the world is a glittering image and that underneath he is more human and more broken than he wants to admit.

This is a book about healing and about how the face that we present to the world causes damage to us and to others. It’s also about the dangers of ambition and the damage that comes from that too. There is an acceptance of God’s power and reality in the characters but also a slight touch of mysticism too.

I found this novel compelling. It was illuminating to spend time with Charles Ashworth and to watch him discover things about himself and others. This is one of a series of six books which are interconnected and I shall definitely seek out the next.

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