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Penelope Lively

Judgement Day

Category: Fiction | Published: 1980 | Review Added: 03-04-2021

Rating: 4 - A top read

Intellectual mother-of-two Clare Paling moves to the Oxfordshire village of Laddenham when her successful husband gets a new job. Stuck for something to do during the day, she gets involved in a church fundraising campaign, bringing to bear on the activity both an interest in eccesiastical history and a cool-headed religious scepticism that set her apart from the other participants. She is regarded by her fellow villagers with interest, slight mistrust and, in the case of the vicar, reluctant lust.

The novel follows the lives of Clare and her neighbours in the run-up to the fundraising pageant. An uncouth young couple undergo a crisis in their marriage. The churchwarden Sydney Porter, bereaved and phlegmatic, strikes up an unlikely friendship with their withdrawn son. Members of the church fundraising committee busybody around, to Clare's amusement.

In the narrative's climax, the village is shaken by an outbreak of high-level vandalism, and a tragic incident involving one of its residents. If there's a God, why does He allow these things to happen? Yet paradoxically, the vicar muses that "never before had he known the church so filled with goodwill." Something binds human beings to each other, but what role does religion play in that binding?

I have always enjoyed Penelope Lively's novels, and this is possibly the best I've read so far. The action is mostly low-key but interesting. The characters are well-drawn: the repressed, ineffectual vicar, the reserved churchwarden, and Clare herself, aware of and critical of her streak of detached complacency. The church means something different to all the characters, though for none of them is it a source of untainted spiritual solace.

The novel does not resolve into easy conclusions, but it is cleverly structured around the poles of its two central personalities, Clare and the vicar. Clare would like the certainties of faith, but as she puts it, "The trouble with people like me, one of the many troubles, is not so much that we've got all the answers as that we are incapable of suspending disbelief." Coming from the opposite direction, the vicar, God's official representative on Earth, has lost all but the outward trappings of his belief; nonetheless

[...] in the end he decided, if decision it could be called, that he both would and could perform his duties as adequately or inadequately as he ever had, that while not easy in his mind he was not a great deal less easy than he had ever been, and that he might as well go on as he was.

Judgement Day is a deceptively straightforward study of normal people going through life's normal problems and crises, the religious theme being more a peg upon which Lively hangs her musings on human nature, than an impetus to metaphysical speculation. As always, her prose is succinct and focussed: it is evocative where appropriate, but through judicious selection of sensory details rather than longwinded description. The narrative is taut and well-tuned, resulting in a short page-count and no extraneous or boring passages. Lively is a writer who has a lot to say, and who applies impressive technical resources in saying it.

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