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After the Apocalypse: Real-Life Stories
published in Lay Witness, 1999
This text is the author's copy and may vary slightly from the publisher's copy.

Book Review: Conceived Without Sin by Bud MacFarlene
Strangers and Sojourners by Michael O'Brien

Published in The National Catholic Register, December 7-13 1997
This text is the author's copy and may vary slightly from the publisher's copy.

Conceived Without Sin (Saint Jude Media) and Strangers and Sojourners (Ignatius) have several things in common besides both being 1997 summer releases in the fledgling Catholic fiction market. For one thing, both are the second novels of previously best-selling Catholic authors. Both of the first novels (MacFarlane's Pierced By A Sword and O'Brien's Father Elijah) were apocalyptic fiction. Both of the second novels are a change to a more realistic plots. And from the new forward of the recently-revised forward to Pierced By A Sword, it seems as though the two authors have become friends as well.

Strangers and Sojourners, although purportedly in the same series "Children of the Last Days," is a quite different novel from its predecessor, Father Elijah. Elijah was an adventure/suspense novel with Vatican plots, worldwide conspiracies, murders, intrigue, and drama. Strangers is a bad "sequel" in that its plot is not at all in the same vein. Folks who pick it up expecting the same fast-developing movement of Elijah will be disappointed.

However, I think that Strangers is a much better book than Elijah. For me, Elijah was marred by some patchy plotting and abrupt swings in style. Strangers is far, far more consistent. The plot's "slow" pace fits O'Brien's semi-poetic style much, much better. And whereas Elijah gave my suspended disbelief a real workout, Strangers has the feel of real life at its grittiest.

The book starts out ominously with a seance atop the hill of the White Horse in England, where nineteenth-century mediums channel the spirit of Merlin in the presence of a terrified girl child. Despite this supernaturalist beginning, the book then descends to the plain of the ordinary and remains there for almost the entire rest of the story.

It is the story of Anne Ashton, the child of the first chapter, who grows into an atheistic freethinking writer whose ideals lead her first to the battlefields of the First World War, and then to the bushlands of Canada. For me, the story grew compelling once Anne marries the Irish mystical peasant-poet Stephen Delaney, whose beauty of physique and soul attract her, even though she doesn't understand them. The book presents a moving account of a decade-spanning marriage full of mutual distrust and attraction.

Its bittersweet tragedy is about two people who refuse to continue growing in their relationship and what that sacrifice costs them and their children. Intimacy is a lesson that takes a lifetime to learn. Strangers is almost a fictional meditation on the heart of the sacrament of marriage. It's a worthwhile read with an ending that will have the reader poised for the next installment of the series.

Conceived Without Sin is written in a breezy contemporary style of the "beach novel." It centers around the day-to-day life of an odd threesome - a Catholic recovering alcoholic UPS driver, a homely but talented computer entrepreneur who is an atheist, and an Italian girl stuck in a dead-end job. Buzz, Sam, and Donna become friends in an odd way and share movies, trips to the beach, and personal crises.

As often happens in real life, the serious faith of Buzz and Donna doesn't apparently affect their successful unbelieving friend. He gets all the breaks, and they get all the suffering, or so it seems. The plot meanders along leisurely for a while, then takes several unexpected and fast-driving twists with a riveting climax at the end. It's a tear-jerker.

The small circle of friends widens to include Mark Johnson, an FBI man whose Catholic marriage is on the rocks, and Ellen James, a sultry blonde beauty from the right side of town. The character of Buzz, the overweight movie buff whose vocal Catholicism is the catalyst for a friendship in the first place, is a mixture of Chestertonian mystic ordinariness and Flannery O'Connor grit. He's seemingly overflowing with ebullient faith that provides all the answers, but his problems are the ones that too many people face today - divorce, addiction, and a heavy depression that doesn't seem to lift despite prayer and daily Mass. But Buzz's faith sustains him more than he himself even realizes, and the book shows that God is faithful even in failure.

Strangers and Conceived are two very different novels that will probably appeal to different kinds of people. Conceived is a quick and enjoyable read. Strangers is heavier, but meatier. But both books are fairly good in their genres. It shows how much variety can be found even between writers who are co-religionists and good friends as well.

copyright Regina Doman, 1999. This document is available for republishing only after the author's permission has been obtained. Click the top button for an email link to the author.

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