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Ashworth, "The Friday Gospels" (reviewed by Julie J. Nichols) Options · View
jeffneedle
Posted: Saturday, March 23, 2013 7:55:58 AM

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Review
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Title: The Friday Gospels
Author: Jenn Ashworth
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, London
Genre: Novel
Year Published: 2013
Number of Pages: 324
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 9781444707724
Price: L17.99 ($18.74)

Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols for the Association for Mormon Letters

Five voices speak in alternate sections in this very fine, indisputably Mormon novel. They are the voices of the Leeke family of northwestern England: daughter Jeannie, a teenager still in Young Women, still going to seminary, but neither innocent nor clear, any more, about what’s good and right; father Martin, wretched husband to an ill woman, trapped in a marriage and a life he’s ready to abandon, if he only knew how; twentysomething oldest son Julian, inactive, searching, angry, trapped himself by forces over which he aches to have more control; incontinent wheelchair-bound mother Pauline; and missionary son Gary, returning home in honor tonight, the Friday night of the title, to a set of circumstances he can’t imagine.

Maybe he can’t imagine them, but he’s the only person in the world who can meet them—prepared by his upbringing; by his mission; and by the humility he lives with, brought on by his stammer, his innate faith, and the yoke of responsibility he’s borne in the family all these years.

The five voices are beautifully distinct, but as each member of the family speaks and then steps back to let another forward, the mitigating circumstances are revealed slowly, bit by bit. Characters named in one section appear through a different lens in the next, and the reader, who sees through a glass darkly at first, begins to see each of the family members “face to face,” so to speak—and the faces are mixed, complex, heartbreaking.

From the beginning, Jeannie is confused and afraid. A bad thing has happened, but she’s heard enough lessons on chastity and putting on the armor of God that she knows she could have, should have, handled it differently. She has to keep it secret, but she knows she can’t. Her brother Gary’s coming home from America today, that is, if the airline can make it through the ash of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull (so we can pinpoint the very date of this Friday: April 16, 2010), and she’s hanging on just until he gets home. Surely he can make it right.

Martin loves his dog these days more than he loves his disabled wife. His dog has led him to Nina, another dog lover, and he dreams of moving in with her, making a new life, leaving the wretchedness of his family behind. But he makes a mess of it. And Julian knows.

But that’s not all there is to worry about as far as Julian goes. Julian’s as obsessed with the wrong female as his father is, equally obsessed with getting away, with abandoning the family and starting over. It’s just a matter of figuring out how. And from the moment we comprehend his plan, we’re writhing in agony. Surely this can never go well.

Pauline’s sections have no paragraphing—that’s one way we know it’s Pauline talking. (It’s no secret, actually—each section is clearly titled by the name of the person speaking.) Another is the Mormon-cliché-ridden, hackneyed worldview she clings to in order to keep herself from despair. Damaged when she gave birth to Jeannie, she’s become despicable even to herself, except that Heavenly Father loves everyone, and Gary’s been a good missionary, and those are two things to hold on to, aren’t they?

Ashworth reveals the strange chokehold that Mormon culture has on each of these anguished people through scenes and conversations terribly familiar to those of us raised in it. At first I was tempted to be put off by these—“good” Mormon girl whispering “shoulds” to her wayward friend on the soccer team; bishop’s wife spouting platitudes; horrible YW lessons, worse seminary ones; well-meaning bishop corralling black sheep to try to reactivate him. But then I began to admire how Ashworth presents these prototypical Mormon moments to an audience that may or may not be LDS. They’re neither apologetic nor false. The focus is on the characters, their individual flaws and needs, so that the Mormon part of their lives is seen to be both cause and motivator and the essential backdrop for the decisions they finally make.

You can see that I’m working not to give anything away here, because you want to read this novel free from predisposition. You don’t want to know how it ends till you arrive there yourself. I strongly suggest that you do, noting, as you do, Ashworth’s skill throughout in creating character and scene; her facility in allowing plot to move forward and backward in just the right order so that we understand why what’s happening on this Friday has to come together in just this way; and her watchful care in weaving Mormonness into the fabric of the story, so that it’s essential but not overbearing. This may be the best mainstream Mormon novel in a very long time. I see academic papers analyzing it at Sunstone Symposia and Mormon lit classes spending weeks with it, and also non-Mormon audiences being fascinated and repelled by it and drawn to it enormously.

Jenn Ashworth was named one of the twelve Best New British Novelists of 2011, and it’s easy to see why. The novel unfolds brilliantly, and its handling of Mormon themes is similarly exemplary. Structurally and thematically, this is one novel not to miss. I recommend it without reservation.
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