So, Christopher was kind enough to ask my take on Lent, the recent novel by Jo Walton. I liked it a lot.
I’m going to have spoilers in this note, by the way. And I also think that probably, if you haven’t read the book, it would be best to read it without knowing what’s going on. Don’t read the blurb on the jacket, either, is my advice. Go into it not knowing what the hell it’s about or what it’s doing, and then if you are getting any enjoyment out of it, stick with it. I don’t think it would spoil your enjoyment to know that it’s a very different book than it first appears to be, but I do think it’s more powerful if you don’t know in what way. So: from this point on, I’m writing for people who have already read the thing. OK?
Right? You’ve all finished the thing?
So, the first thing I want to say is that I thought it was terrific formally and structurally and in genre terms—the first half of the book is a straight-ahead historical novel about fifteenth-century Florence. That’s not quite true, though, as there are two speculative elements: Savonarola experiences the ability to see and cast out demons, and he experiences prophetic speech. Both of those are uncorroborated in any real sense; readers are not given any clues that they should doubt that these things are real, but at the same time, I think many readers will have the experience I did, of not being entirely certain whether Savonarola is simply deluded—that it may not be a fantasy novel, just a novel that contains a man’s fantasies. It’s a terrific historical novel, but from its placement on the bookstore and library shelves, I wasn’t expecting a historical novel, so I was a bit disoriented, and that feeling of disorientation focused itself on those speculative elements, which as I say, were untrustworthy: the demons and the prophecy.
And then Savonarola dies. The book shifts into its second half, which demands that we take its demons and prophecy seriously. Everything we knew about the world was—not wrong, but seen only through a glass, darkly. There is a fantastic (in many senses) interlude in Hell, and then we are back in Florence. The next bit of the book is, mostly, an alternate-universes novel, and a pretty good one. We see Savonarola try to change his future and his friends’ and his city’s; we see some aspects of the timeline assert themselves and others change easily. We flip between alternate universes at increasing speed. The action of the plot slows down, but I felt that the experience of reading the book sped up as we skimmed increasingly lightly over the universes. We’ve reversed, by the end, to the view that what is real and tangible is Hell and its demons. The very existence of the real world of fifteen-century Florence, with its natural and rational laws and with its human desires and connections, seems more like a fever dream of a tortured Duke of Hell.
So that’s all really wonderful stuff, nicely imagined and handled.
But none of that is what the book’s about. The book is about a fallen angel who wants to return to the Divine. It’s about the desire for Grace, and the uncertainty of ever receiving it. It’s about experiencing this world primarily as a representation of Divine creation and looking for your place in it. It’s about what it means to be separated from the Divine. It’s about faith and its absence, and what might fill that absence.
As the book winds its way through to its conclusion, the goal seems to recede. Savonarola still wants to harrow Hell, but there are fewer and fewer ideas for how to do it, and he seems to do less and less that directly applies to that goal. He never really has faith that the goal is attainable, which is an interesting and somewhat troubling aspect of the book’s interest in faith. As the book speeds up, he seems to just be flailing around rather than having any sort of plan. That teeters (to me) on the edge of making the book less interesting to read, and if it had gone on much longer I think I would have become really frustrated with it. But it resolves itself quite quickly at the end, in yet another reversal of what we thought we understood.
And before I get to that reversal, I want to talk a bit about the book’s attitude toward torture, which is (I think) really central to the whole thing. Savonarola experiences a variety of tortures over the course of the book. When he returns to consciousness as a demon, he experiences that return as torture. He describes as torture the knowledge of the futility of his human life, of all his human lives. The reason he is Savonarola is to torture him. In addition, he is physically tortured whilst in Hell, both passively by the nature of his physical form (the vividness of the acid leaking from its breasts was really powerful for me) and actively by other demons, most particularly Crookback. His human body is physically tortured as well, in different ways in different universes. And what’s interesting to me is that none of this is written with the kind of sadistic glee that I often feel underlies fiction about torture. And it may be the only book I’ve ever read which takes for granted that the protagonist will confess to anything under torture, true or false, and that is not a character flaw of the protagonist but a fact of torture.
I think, perhaps, that torture, by which I mean the deliberate imposition of pain, represents Evil in Lent. It’s not the opposite of Good, and it’s not the absence of Good, but torture is a profound fact of the world of the book, and it is portrayed as fundamentally, well, fundamentally unnecessary. And I think it’s remarkable how often in fiction torture is portrayed as necessary. Whether it’s the protagonist being tortured or doing the torturing, there’s a piece of information that someone needs, or an example must be made, or in some other way there’s a need to somebody to deliberately inflict pain. In this book, torture is what Hell is about, and it is as unnecessary as… Hell itself.
That is, in the end, the fundamental point of the book, isn’t it? A profound meditation on grace and loss and faith, and in the end, all it takes is to say the one thing they can’t say in Hell: we could work together. That’s all. In the end, the way back to the Divine love was so simple. The last reversal of the book. Everything we thought we knew about how Grace was going to work is revealed as unnecessary. What we learn, the endpoint of all this toing and froing in all the spiraling universes of the story, is just: we can work together.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,