by Richard T. Kelly
Faber & Faber, HK$214
In every sense, Crusaders, the debut novel from Richard T. Kelly, is not light. At a dense 538 pages, it is physically hefty. And though there are humorous moments, the issues of morality render it less of a story of starting a church and more a serious debate about religion and politics.
Crusaders is set predominantly in 1996, eight months before the Labour Party took back power in Britain, in May 1997, after 18 often painful years of Conservative rule. The Reverend John Gore, a young Anglican clergyman and Labour member since his teens, has been given the job of establishing a church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It was never supposed to be an easy task, but Gore seems to have the necessary zeal and enthusiasm to carry off his mission in the poorer end of a town struggling to regenerate itself. His work, however, proves to be more complicated than he imagined and he's challenged by three characters. His relationship with each of these locals proves to be essential to his success and, to varying degrees, Gore is dependent on all three for their help.
Each, naturally, has ambitions and secrets. There is former bouncer Steve Coulson, who runs a 'security' operation in town, single mother Lindy Clark, with whom he begins a relationship, and Martin Pallister, the local Labour MP, who has embraced Christian Socialism. The novel thus tackles the impact and agenda of all three influences on Gore's beliefs; his ability to balance the information he learns as the novel progresses, and as he naively descends into the criminal underworld, is scrutinised.
Kelly, born in Newcastle in 1970, worked as a journalist during the period in which the novel is set. A newspaper article about 'church-planting' piqued his interest, as did the stories he covered focusing on crime and poverty. Kelly's research is evident, although it's his dialogue that keeps the story going.
Propelled by the widespread use of 'Geordie speak', or the dialect of northeast England, the pace of the novel picks up midway through the first part - and, given the nature of the book, a dramatic finish awaits. Then again, that is to be expected when the story is about a man, a woman, violence, religion and politics. While Crusaders talks of the great moral issues framing ordinary lives, there are more prosaic themes too: life isn't all fun in a council flat in a city clawing its way out of depression.
Inevitably, Gore's struggle hinges on when he will face his enemies - and himself. As Kelly told The Independent: 'He has enough fortitude and intelligence to carry [him] so far, but the drama of the book is about where he's deficient. One has to be wary of sanctimony: how much do any of us live up to the vaunted tasks we give ourselves?'