‘This novel’s real strength is in its characters’ – The Revelations by Alex Preston

The Revelations is the story of four friends Marcus, Mouse, Abby and Lee, who are looking for meaning in their lives and seem to find it in the Course, an evangelical Christian movement led by charismatic priest David Nightingale.  As the Course takes over the friends’ existence they find their beliefs tested to the limits and themselves in danger from a movement that is suddenly more important than their own lives.  The title of the book with its many layered meaning is well chosen.  The four main characters are in a band, The Revelations, that plays at the church services; the Course expects them to seek and find revelation, and finally it is the dawning of understanding about the conflict at the heart of the story.

Alex Preston is good at beginnings.  From the first chapter of his debut novel, This Bleeding City, this reviewer was gripped.  The same is true of The Revelations.  The narrative darts between each of the characters drawing you immediately into the story.  Although the Course itself is not explained straight away, the reader can make a pretty good guess as to what it is and from the off we know who’s story this is and the probable journey each of the characters is going to make.

This novel’s real strength is in its characters.  Marcus is perhaps the real hero, as it is through his eyes that we experience the majority of the story.  He is the doubter and it is his sense of unease in the Course that communicates directly to us.  Marcus has a fear of death after witnessing the death of his own father and that seems to drive his need to believe in God.  However, he presents his case for joining the Course in a slightly different way:

“You don’t just come here to talk about the big questions.  You also find yourself at the centre of a really vibrant social scene.  We have dinner at each other’s houses, we go to each other’s weddings, we are godparents to each other’s children.  I haven’t really kept in touch with that many of my friends from before the Course.  I haven’t needed to.  The people you will meet here will be your friends for life.”

It is this that drives Marcus to keep committing to the Course, coupled with his sense that the heady days of his youth are now behind him, something he obviously regrets.  Marcus needs the Course to provide him with a road map for the future.

It is the need to belong to the ‘in crowd’ that consumes Mouse.  He wants to be one of the beautiful people and the Course gives him that.  He is a very real character; one that is easily identifiable in society and probably one that a lot of people could relate to.  His sadness is that he wants to belong, but ultimately will probably fail.

Abby is the character with a real fundamentalist belief and yet she is obsessed with reading anti religion books and has a stack of them by her bed.  I wish Preston had made more of this.  It is an interesting side to her character and perhaps the character of the whole Course, that she feels the need to constantly test her beliefs and I would liked to have had it explored further.

It is the enigmatic Lee and her relationship with the others, with the Course and with her own depression that drives the story and shows the Course for what it really is.  The centre of the book revolves around the members Retreat where the new members expect to achieve ‘the revelation’ and find their path to God.  This involves a service where the participants end up speaking in tongues.  Marcus never manages to achieve this level of abandonment and finds ‘the whole process rather embarrassing’, something he regards as a personal failure.  It is Lee who speaks the most sense:

“Half of us fake it anyway.  It’s all just part of the game.  I bet you David fakes it sometimes.  I always find it a bit fishy that the Holy Spirit can be called up on demand like a genie in a lamp.”

Her sentiments echo our own.  As we watch the characters writhing around speaking in tongues it is uncomfortable to watch and almost ludicrous and that seems to be the point.  It’s all a show and not a particularly pleasant one.  We feel that their need to find meaning in their comparatively easy lives has made them vulnerable and susceptible and almost want to yell at them to get out whilst they can.

It is at the Retreat that the pivotal moment of the story happen which, of course, will not be revealed here.  But it was set up well from the beginning with clever foreshadowing and creation of atmosphere so that the event, when it occurs, is both inevitable and surprising.

The priest who founded the Course, David, is the least likeable character in the book.  The Course members find him charismatic and charming, but as the reader we quickly see through all that and see instead an uncaring egomaniac.  Although he professes to love all the members, in reality all he cares about is the continued expansion of his Course.  I sometimes found myself wishing the members would stand up and say something to David, but of course the fact that they don’t is the whole point of the story.  They are so enmeshed in the Course and its world, and so detached from reality, that they can’t see it for what it is.  That is what makes the book so scary; that they have come so far that they can no longer see the truth.  It makes you shiver with relief that you can close the book and walk away from their world.

In This Bleeding City I found Preston’s dialogue to be sometimes clunky.  In this book he has obviously worked harder at the dialogue and I found it much improved.  It is in David’s speeches that his real skill is shown.  David is pompous and arrogant and Preston captures that perfectly in the long sermons David gives to the group.

The Course itself is like a character.  It is presented as providing its members with ‘an extraordinary spiritual experience’, something that the majority of the characters seem to believe.  However, as an outsider looking in, the Course seems to be anything but.  The Course is there to divide and rule; to keep its members separate from the rest of society so that they cannot function outside it and it succeeds.  It also seems to be an exercise in fund raising and making contacts within the business world for the benefit of some of the members.  This branch of Christianity has no qualms about wealth and even uses the biblical story of it being easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than for him to enter heaven, to its own twisted advantage.  Marcus expresses our doubts for us when he questions some of the methods used to keep hold of new members believing that the Course ‘should live or die on its own merits’.  David is the one who, surprisingly, tells us the truth about the Course:

“You must remember that no other Christian movement has the money, the connections, the marketing savvy of the Course.  We are going to be a global brand before long…”

The irony is that this is almost exactly what the members are trying to escape from by becoming part of this movement.   Preston has used his own knowledge of the financial world to good effect in this story.  To his credit he has kept it in the background and used it to expose the hypocrisy at the centre of the movement rather than writing another novel in a similar vein to his last.  This gives the novel authenticity and strength.

On the negative side, sometimes Preston brings details to our attention by close observation and then doesn’t always follow it through, leaving the question hanging as to why that was important.  It was the description of the lakeside during the Retreat that most left me wanting more.  The trees around the lake are dead with rotting bark and dead rooks hang above grain drums used to feed pheasants.  The purpose, I’m sure, is to give us a sense of foreboding.  This reviewer, however, wanted more from such a startling description, something that was vital to the story.

Preston has obviously done a lot of research for this book, including attending similar courses.  It is his real strength as a writer that he has resisted the temptation to show off his knowledge and dump it on the page.  Instead, the research infuses the story with a sense of realism that gives the whole book depth and understanding.

Any Cop?:  Yes. This is a dark, enticing story with echoes of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. It is well paced and gripping throughout, even in the difficult middle where a lot of books falter. This is the work of a talented writer with much more to come.

Julie Fisher

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