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by Ronan Bennett
Bloomsbury, September 2004
256 pages
ISBN: 0747562490

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Ronan Bennett is not a newcomer to fiction. THE SECOND PRISON was shortlisted for The Irish Times/Aer Lingus First Fiction Award and THE CATASTROPHIST for the Whitbread Novel Award in 1999. One trusts he is not forever doomed to the role of bridesmaid since HAVOC IN ITS THIRD YEAR is surely worthy of an award.

Bennett's life has been interesting -- in the Chinese curse sense of the word. Born in Belfast, he was falsely accused and imprisoned for the murder of an English policeman when he was a teenager. He is, therefore, eminently qualified to write, as he does in this novel, of the thoughts and feelings of the wrongly imprisoned.

John Brigge is the coroner in a Yorkshire town in the 1630s. He is, secretly, a Catholic in a time when following one's religion, be it the wrong brand, can bring a swift, albeit brutal, death. The power of the original ruler, Lord Savile, was destroyed when Nathaniel Challoner and his cohorts, including Brigge, overthrew the despot three years prior to the beginning of the narrative.

Brigge lives apart from the town on his farm. His wife Elizabeth is about to give birth and John chafes at the necessity of being separated from her at this dangerous time. He must bring judgment against an Irish woman, Katherine Shay. She has been accused of murdering her own baby -- a crime she denies, although refusing to elaborate. She does tell Brigge that the dead baby is not her own. Brigge refuses to hand down his judgment until a witness, Susana, is brought before him to testify although the true whereabouts of the girl are denied him.

In the meantime, Brigge's enemies are plotting against him and, as they have the advantage of proximity, are alienating affections of the Master. Nathaniel's mind is poisoned and he doubts the sincerity of Brigge's recusancy.

It is a time of religious fanaticism. Brigge's young clerk Adam is party to secrets which would bring down the Catholic household. He is, however, unaware of a secret which would destroy his own faith, the fact of Brigge's infidelity to his wife.

After a long and difficult labour, Elizabeth is delivered of a son but both are left with poor health. Brigge refuses Challoner's orders that he return to town and renounces his office. Nonetheless, he follows the case of the rebellious Irish woman, Shay, convinced of her innocence and determined to solve the case -- which he feels might also bring about the downfall of his enemies.

This is a very powerful novel. Since the time about which he writes is the one he studied for his PhD it goes without saying that the historical accuracy is impeccable. John Brigge was an actual, historical figure -- although Bennett is at pains to point out that the story itself is fiction.

At the other end of credibility, there is a heavy touch of the supernatural about the tale. Brigge is subject to hallucinations and very real religious fears. On the other hand, he is not above exploiting the superstitious beliefs of his audience. For example, at one stage despairing of accomplishing the conviction of a man of whose guilt in the murder of the man's wife he is convinced, Brigge forces the man to touch the disintegrating corpse of his wife, reminding the onlookers that if a murderer touches the corpse of his victim, the victim's flesh bleeds. Sure enough, the crowd 'sees' the blood and screams the perpetrator's guilt.

This book is an engrossing tale albeit not a 'pretty' one. There are moral dilemmas to be encountered on all sides. It is a great tribute to scholarship and the triumph of success despite adversity.

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, December 2004

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