Virgin & Child Maggie Hamand.
This novel opens with the first walk about of a newly elected pope. Pope Patrick is the first Irish Bishop of Rome, he arrives in a time of turmoil within the Church. His outlook gives some measure of hope to progressives while worrying conservative elements of the Vatican Curia. However, Pope Patrick is about to discover a secret that has the power to shake the very foundations of Catholic faith.
Often when novels speak of a secret that will blow the reader’s mind it leads to anti-climax, not so here, Maggie Hamand really does present us with a devastating and shocking secret. A scenario that highlights the difficulty of modern theological thinking in a rapidly developing scientific world.
This is a novel deserving of wide public attention, it’s both thought provoking and hugely entertaining. Virgin & Child addresses some weighty themes but the novel is very accessible and while it never takes its subject lightly there’s plenty of humour and thrills here. I was surprised a couple of years ago by how gripping Robert Harris’s Conclave was, Virgin & Child also demonstrates that a novel set in the high echelons of the Vatican can be both compassionate to the ideas of faith, the faithful and a belief in God and yet subversive and interrogative.
Virgin & Child is undoubtedly a literary novel, this is an exploration of faith and religion in the modern world. It’s philosophical and theological themes revolve around the patriarchal mind-set, the Church and societal attitudes to gender politics, (the role of women, fertility and sexuality).
Ask yourself, what would shake your faith? How devastating would a revelation have to be to cause you re-examine your fundamental understanding of the world and your beliefs? Of course, it isn’t necessary to believe in God to consider this; imagine the scientific tenets that underpin your life crumbling. The secret at the heart of Virgin & Child causes Pope Patrick and the inner circle of Vatican power to feel the world has tilted from its axis. As to the secret, each reader needs to come to it for themselves, first reactions are crucial. Be open minded, this is not an attack on faith but it questions outdated values, beaurcracy, and patriarchy. The novel is not flip with faith, the point is not whether you accept the interpretation or even the premise, but whether you engage with it. Surely, a faith that can’t stand criticism or examination is no faith at all?
‘You said you’d listen.’ [Siobhan to Pope Patrick]
On the Feast of the Annunciation Pope Patrick greets the crowd in St. Peter’s Square. People shout his name, protestors are being kept at a distance. Patrick sees a mother holding up a baby and he takes the child, kissing it’s forehead, realising he doesn’t have a free hand for a blessing. Everyone seems distracted by this beautiful moment, Patrick hands the child to a guard, the mother is temporarily lost in the crowd, it’s an overwhelming atmosphere. Then a woman bursts free and head towards Patrick, she is snarling, hurling herself forward to attack him. In the struggle he can’t help but strike her back, eventually his guards restrain her. Pope Patrick is shaken and bleeding, the public audience is abandoned. The woman had called him a ‘murderer’, why?
In the Pope’s private quarters the inquest starts. Fr. Alfonso, Second Private Secretary and Cardinal Secretary of State Romano, want to review security and check the woman has no terrorist links. The Inspector General of the Vatican Gendarmerie, Pietro Giordano, wonders if they should hand the woman over to the Italian police, (she must be punished to avoid setting a terrible precedent). Pope Patrick is sure this is all an over reaction, he wants to return to his usual schedule as soon as possible. He takes a miniature whiskey bottle from his pocket, a gift from a well wisher:
‘Holy father that is not safe!’ Alfonso said. ‘It has not been screened. Something could have been in it.’
Patrick found himself smiling again. ‘Father Alfonso, it is quite alright, there is no danger. It was given to me by an Irish woman, not a cardinal.’
The demonstration the woman sprang from is about women’s rights, abortion rights. The Pope’s election received positive coverage everywhere except the Irish Times. A recent change in the law in his own country allowed abortion in certain circumstances but shortly before the legislations was enacted a young married woman died unable to have the abortion that would have saved her life. The Church’s view is clear, the Second Vatican council declared abortion ‘an unspeakable crime’, (1962-65).
Pope Patrick is a reformer in the making, he wants to modernise the Curia, restructure the Vatican bank, reduce the influence of extreme conservatism, and deal with the sex abuse scandal – shake things up. First he has to find out why the woman called him a murderer. Siobhan is a County Mayo Connelly, a friend of the woman who died, (50,000 women a year die during illegal abortions):
‘Many of these women,’ she said, ‘Did not want to be pregnant they did not choose it they may have been married to someone they didn’t want to marry they may be too young to have a child or two old they may have been raped they are desperate can you understand what that feels like? No how could you. You are not a woman…’
Even though Siobhan desperately wants a child but can’t have one, she nonetheless feels for the plight of those who don’t:
‘We do not murder women, Siobhan.’
‘You might as well,’ she said.
Left to ponder on what Siobhan has said Pope Patrick begins to feel unwell…
Virgin & Child is a provocative novel, it’s intelligent and engages with faith in a compassionate way. The portrait of Patrick is touching, he’s a sympathetic character, a reformer, a troubled man, struggling with doctrine and tradition. While the machinations and factional infighting of the Curia, the cognoscenti of the Church, are present these are men with feet of clay not villains, the novel is a fair in its representation of religious conviction.
Maggie Hamand was the first winner of the World One Day Novel Cup, for The Resurrection of the Body, she is a theologian, publisher, teacher and writer. Her books are unique, bold, and challenging none more so than Virgin & Child.
ISBN: 9781909954342, Barbican Press, hardback, April, 2020.
Virgin & Child Maggie Hamand.