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Susan’s Bookshelves: The Wives of Halcyon by Eirinie Lapidaki

I found this book quite literally almost impossible to put down. And even when I had to, I thought about it continually. It got right under my skin. Published earlier this year, it was praised in Good Housekeeping  by Ruth Hogan as “a dazzling debut” and thank goodness Ruth highlighted it because otherwise it might have passed me by.

We’re in an enclosed community – an extreme Christian cult – in the remote Scottish Highlands. In charge is a “prophet” – God’s mouthpiece – known as Elijah. He has three wives, one of whom was his original legal wife when he lived with her in a flat in town. He plans to take another, a teenager, soon as advised, he says, by God. The book is narrated by the three women in turn, eventually joined by the fourth, so that Lapidaki can gradually and very skilfully reveal where they came from, how they lived before, how they live now and what they feel.  Thus we “hear” four very distinctive voices – and, of course, we can see past their narration. Cracks are showing. Elijah and his henchman John are clearly not quite what they seem or claim to be but the women are all transfixed at some level by Elijah’s sexual charisma and authority. They have also come to value the warmth of communal living. So their thoughts, feelings and emotions are complicated.

Of course children are born. There is no medical support apart from Ruth, one of the “sister wives” who has an American midwifery qualification. Elijah doesn’t trust any sort of authority other than his own, including hospitals.  Although it’s not laboured, this is a clear breach of the law because none of the children born at Halycon (also known as Heaven on Earth) is registered. Babies are allowed 40 days with their mothers and then moved to the school house for communal care. Women are not permitted individual contact with their own children. And “discipline” in the schoolhouse, we gradually realise, is dreadful abuse. When Ollie has to be treated for hypothermia it sets alarm bells ringing. Lapidaki is very good indeed at drip-feeding the hints via her narrators. At one point one of them notices – in passing  – that the pupils of Elijah’s eyes are tiny. It is enough to alert the reader.

One of the tenets of this extreme form of literalist Christianity (Elijah can produce a Bible quote, usually Old Testament, to support any assertion) is that “The End” is coming. The world will crumble and all the “sinners” – that is anyone outside Halcyon – will go to hell. Well, of course, he’s right. The end does come, rather more prosaically than Elijah promises but you don’t need spoilers here.

The really interesting thing about this novel is that it’s very nuanced. We have all read about these brain-washing religious cults. And we all know that Lord Acton was right: absolute power certainly does corrupt, arguably more in a religious setting than any other because there is a claim to a higher authority. Think of the medieval popes or some of the Ayatollahs today. But it happens gradually. The image we get from Aoife, the first wife, of Elijah back in the city helping her sick mother in a kind, Christian way is warm, attractive and –  well –  normal. Then he decides that their splinter group church, in which they are both involved, should cut itself off. Step by step, ever stricter rules emerge. It’s totally patriarchal, for example. Women are not allowed to express opinions or to challenge men. Of course there’s no smoking or alcohol. Food is very basic and it’s cold because money is an evil so, on a day to day basis there isn’t any. There is no modern technology such as mobile phones and very few electric lights. But do these rules apply to everybody?

No money? Converts donate their life savings and the proceeds of the sale of their homes to Halcyon funds. Aoife is the community accountant and she begins to notice discrepancies. It’s pretty obvious where it’s going – although not, for a long time, to her.

Human beings are like swans. They are programmed to be monogamous  –  often serially, these days. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there is tension between the women because they are jealous of each other. And that is exacerbated by things such as Elijah’s failure to spend the night with the “right” wife according to a rota and Aiofe’s failure to conceive although she has already borne three children. Elijah, we learn, has fathered twelve.  The people who live at Halcyon all have mixed feelings as the novel progresses. There is something richly supportive in communal living based on love and prayer but …

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Brotherless Night by VV Ganeshananthan

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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