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Midwinter of the Spirit - Phil Rickman

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Author: Phil Rickman / Genre: Crime / Thriller

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      30.12.2006 14:24
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      Different from the rest

      I'm not sure what attracted me to this book - I was in a hurry and grabbed the nearest thing on the shelf that looked vaguely interesting. Once I got home and took a proper look at it, I thought I'd probably made a mistake - the heroine of the book is called Merrily for a start - and it was about exorcism. However, I started reading it and quickly became engrossed. Although I regard myself as aetheist now, I was brought up a Christian, yet have never really thought of the Church as having an Exorcism Department. They apparently do though (although this is a work of fiction, it is based on fact) - although it is referred to as 'deliverance' rather than exorcism. This interested me immediately, and coupled with the fact that this book is very readable, this book made a very enthralling read.

      Merrily Watkins is parish priest who has been invited by the Bishop of Hereford to take on the role of exorcist for the Hereford area. She is dubious about her ability to take on such a role, but agrees to take part in one or two cases before finally making her mind up. She soon comes to believe that she is not cut out for the job, particularly because one evil spirit she tries to exorcise appears to have entered her body and the priest that she is to take over from puts as many barriers in her way as possible.

      At the same time, Merrily's friend, Lol Robinson, a trainee psychologist, has become involved with the rather strange Kathy Moon, who goes by the name of Moon. She has moved into a barn on the farm where her father committed suicide when she was a child. Mentally unstable to begin with, she seems to be getting worse and is obsessed with crows. The crow theme continues elsewhere, when dead crows are part of a Satanist ritual carried out in a Herefordshire church. And people are dying. Is there a link with Merrily's work or is the problem man-made? Can Lol and Merrily work out what is happening before more people die?

      This is not really the sort of book that I would usually read; in fact, I only did because it was in the crime fiction section. I'm not sure why, but I tend to stay clear of anything that revolves around the Church and I'm not too keen on stories about the occult either (although for some reason that doesn't extend to films). However, I really enjoyed this book. The story is very complicated - it reminded me of Elizabeth George's books in that it has several strands to it - but the author still managed to keep a tight hold of all the strands and I never felt that it was getting out of control. The strands are not obviously related to begin with, but as the story progresses, this changes. The pacing is excellent; there was never a chance to get bored because each time the story slowed down, something else happened to perk it up. The book is long at over 500 pages, but the chapters are relatively short, so I found myself thinking 'just one more, just one more', then before I knew it, I'd read another 50 pages.

      I liked the way that the author managed to combine a story which involves the supernatural with a down-to-earthness that stopped it from being too unbelievable. Many of the happenings could be put down to human action, although there is just enough doubt about this to make the book interesting.

      Character-wise, after the initial distaste at Merrily's name, I really came to like her. She is a widow with one teenage daughter and came to the Church after the break-up of her marriage. Despite her religious beliefs, there is no sanctimoniousness about Merrily - she has made mistakes in the past and continues to do so, which makes her all the more likeable. Like many mothers, she has problems with her teenage daughter Jane, who has a hatred of the Church and is dabbling in paganism. I think the author did an excellent job with Merrily; the combination of her religious beliefs and her role as an exorcist could have made her an odd character, yet she is hugely realistic and I really rooted for her throughout the book. Considering the author is male, this is a very accurate portrayal of an ordinary woman in her mid-30s (I should know, I am one!).

      Lol Robinson is an ex-musician who has had mental health problems in the past; in fact, he was hospitalised for a time. This led to his interest in psychology and his involvement with Moon. He is a thoughtful man who is attracted to Moon, yet realises that there is no hope for them, and also has feelings for Merrily. Again, he is a very down to earth, realistic character that helped to anchor the story.

      I thought the author's portrayal of Merrily's daughter, Jane, was particularly sensitive. She is clearly verging on adulthood, yet is struggling to cope with her mother's religion and new job, which go against everything she herself believes in. She is easily swayed by her peers, which concerns her mother, because of her involvement with a girl two years older than her who appears to be a pathological liar. Instead of being an annoying extra character in the book, Jane helps to make it even more rounded.

      I'm actually struggling to find anything about this book to criticise, yet I don't feel that it deserves five stars. It is a very readable book and the story is certainly a bit different from your usual crime fiction/thriller and as such, deserves four stars, but it is not quite good enough for five. I will certainly be looking out for other books in the series though.

      The book is available from play.com for £5.49. Published by Pan Macmillan, it has 544 pages. ISBN: 9780330374019

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  • Product Details

    When offered the post once styled 'diocesan exorcist', the Revd Merrily Watkins - parish priest and single parent - cannot easily refuse. But the retiring exorcist, strongly objecting to women priests, not only refuses to help Merrily but ensures that she's soon exposed to the job at its most terrifying. And things get no easier. As an early winter slices through the old city of Hereford, a body is found in the River Wye, an ancient church is desecrated, and there are signs of dark ritual on a hill overlooking the city. Meanwhile, reports of psychic unrest in the Cathedral itself - where the famous shrine of St Thomas Cantilupe lies in fragments - reflect an undying evil lying close to the heart of the Church itself.