When Jill Paton Walsh, who died last year, wrote this novel she was already a well established and respected author of books for both children and adults with titles such as the fondly remembered A Parcel of Patterns and Fireweed to her name. But in 1994 no one wanted to publish Knowledge of Angels so she self-published it – and it was shortlisted for that year’s Booker Prize, thereby vindicating her and making publishing history. Of course, it was taken up by a mainstream publisher from then on. I read it at the time – with admiration – and am now fascinated to return to it.
So what was the problem? I suspect there were misgivings because Knowledge of Angels is a seriously grown up (not “adult”) novel which poses many questions on a whole range of levels. Many of these questions are about religious awareness and I suppose it was deemed too “difficult” or esoteric for the general book-buying public.
In truth it’s not difficult at all but it certainly leaves you plenty to reflect on. In one sense it’s a fable about outsiders, insiders, communities and immigration – pretty topical in 2021. Occasionally it reminds me of Voltaire’s Candide. We’re on a Mediterranean Island (take your pick) called Grandinsula at the time of the Inquisition – probably in the fifteenth century well before the Reformation. Two things happen. First a swimmer is rescued. He comes from a country none of the Islanders or church dignitaries has heard of – where people are free to choose a religion or do without one. Second, some shepherds find a wild, bent, hirsute female child who has been raised by wolves and lives as one to such an extent that she has been savagely stealing their lambs. Eventually Severo, the local Cardinal, asks a group of nuns to care for and tame the child, whom they name Amara, without ever mentioning God. He wants to know whether understanding of, and belief in, God in innate or whether it is learned. Meanwhile extensive discussions with, and interrogations of Pallinor, the atheist washed up on their shores continue. He’s a nice chap and Severo comes to like him but then the Inquisition gets wind of what’s going on and proof, or not, that religious awareness is inborn suddenly isn’t enough.
The whole novel – written with immaculate spareness – is, in a sense a plea for tolerance which we now need more than ever. It’s timeless. People are still being killed for their religious differences. Rationality remains resolutely off-limits in certain communities. Moreover there’s some lovely story telling here. I loved the scenes, for instance, with Pallinor’s servants who are a very normal young couple and devoted to him. And Josefa who becomes a sort of guardian to Amara in the convent, is an engaging character.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters