by Gillian Philip
256 pages, Strident, East Kilbride
Review by Bill Kirton
Some genres are pretty tightly defined and readers get fidgety if one of their favourite writers steps outside the required confines. But, as a reader, I find the category Young Adult very accommodating. Indeed, the appetites and preferences of young people of all ages constantly surprise me. When I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, for example, I was amazed that it’s classified as reading for children. It’s not only dark, but the complexity of its arguments, the subtleties of its religious analysis, and the mind-stretching magic of its images and conceits make it challenging even for an allegedly mature adult.
The term ‘Young Adult’ is itself challenging. Is it supposed to suggest a more settled individual, no longer the hot prisoner of adolescent fumblings or a martyr to acne? Or is it a patronising term invented by publishers et al to persuade gullible teenagers that reading lifts them a notch higher in social acceptability?
Rhetorical questions, of course, because reading books such as Bad Faith by Gillian Philip make it obvious that they’re intelligent, dynamic people whose terms of reference and sensibility are far greater than I at least give them credit for. From its opening sentence – ‘Before I slipped on the mud and fell over the Bishop, our family didn’t have a lot to do with murder’ – it moves with skill, pace and an irresistible momentum through religion, politics, the complex disruptions of social and family life, violence, tenderness, murder, secrets and some major questions about belief itself. But that unwieldy sentence already does the book an injustice; identifying its main themes in that way is like listing the ingredients in a cordon bleu dish – informative but giving no real idea of what it tastes like. Because this is a complete, rounded, disturbing, uplifting, funny, Michelin-starred novel. (Whatever age you are.)
Its narrator, Cassandra (Cass), lives in a not too distant future world, where the One Church has prevailed and those of alternative faiths, along with non-believers, are executed, persecuted or go into exile. Cass herself has no particular faith, her brother Griff actively questions its values, and their father, who’s a cleric, is more than uncomfortable with the direction the One Church has taken. Add to that a secularist boyfriend, Ming and put them all in a society overseen by the sinister Ma Baxter – President, First Minister and Mother of the Nation – whose diktats are enforced by extremist militia groups such as the Scripture corps morality patrol. The result is an edgy satire of the type of dystopian society towards which we may well be heading. Cass’s social reality can easily be seen as a logical extension of much of what’s happening today.
Philip’s skill as a writer is impressive. She’s created powerful, distinct characters living in a desperate, fractured world and yet she tells the whole story through the words of the sensitive, intelligent Cass, whose very real adolescent preoccupations are blended with seeming artlessness into the wider concerns of social divisions and politico-religious oppressions. Her terms of reference are those of a young woman but her whole life experience is conditioned by powerful forces, such as the difference between faith and religion and the cruelties and injustices which lie just beneath the holy surface. At the same time, the reader’s drawn irresistibly on by a tense murder mystery and, as if that weren’t enough, a tenderly developing love story.
Bad Faith is written with compassion and humour, and what emerges is great story and a conviction that the human spirit can transcend oppression. Many of its themes are uncomfortable, scary, but it’s a joy of a book, a book for adults of all ages.