Review | A Dark and Stormy Night by Tom Stacey

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In this new novel by Tom Stacey, our narrator, the Anglican priest Simon Chance, is lost. Lost in his thoughts, yes, for this stream-of-consciousness narrative circles and weaves, but lost in the woods as well. Chance, when we encounter him, is rambling at nightfall on a solitary hike gone awry. A scholar of Dante as well as a cleric, he points out the resemblance to the opening of The Inferno. Thus only a few pages into the book, Chancre reveals a tendency to wrestle his experiences into an existing narrative or philosophical framework, and then, uncomfortable with complacency, question that very framework. Simon’s unintentional wandering sets the scene for a catharsis after years of psychological turmoil. Much of this catharsis consists of his trying on different narrative outlines— Dante, the Bible, capitalism— and then poking holes in each one.

Just outside these woods, Simon explains, sits a villa in which a crew of wealthy old Oxford buddies waits for him to return from his hike. He’s gone on his lone walk in the woods as a means of escaping the plush vacation for a few hours, knowing these companions see him as an object of nostalgia and curiosity, as “the value of all that allows you to be what you suppose yourself to be dissolve.” (One of the book’s engaging and alarming tendencies is the constant second-person, applied with equal vigour to every object of Simon’s thoughts including himself, so that the reader feels the subject of affection and accusation in equal parts). Simon knows, too, that when he does find his way back, his undergraduate flame Evie will have arrived to join the party. Stacey even hints at the possibility that Simon has, on some subconscious level, wandered off to escape or reflect before seeing Evie.

He recalls abruptly ending his relationship with Evie while becoming more religious at Oxford, because his intense physical attraction to her threatened to overwhelm his emotional attachment. “Was body’s armour to consume its very owner’s love?” he questions, making clear that the question remains unanswered in his old age 93). After leaving Evie and becoming ordained, Simon meets his wife Marigold, a violinist. Simon recounts his fiery conversations with Marigold, raised by a radical atheist father. Their dialogue— like much of Simon’s internal monologue— sags somewhat under its own weight, as if Stacy is so eager to lay out his philosophical and religious questions that narrative falls by the wayside. In one scene Simon ventures, “God is a word. Which he does not seek. Yet in the unwanted word man alone can encounter him,” to which Marigold replies, “I have lost you. It is a risk I must take for my own faith’s sake.” (112). It is difficult to imagine these two engaging in the prosaic business of marriage. Yet these Plato-like dialogues function as rich mini-essays on religion, art, and obligation. Their first conversation, in which Simon insists that Marigold’s violin-playing is essentially a religious practice, makes for particularly absorbing material.

In a roundabout way, we learn the rough story of this marriage. First, Simon reveals— fleetingly, as if afraid of the topic still— that he and Marigold had a son who died in infancy while the family lived abroad during Simon’s missionary days. This memory becomes more poignant beside Simon’s guilt and religious doubt. “When Jasper died, the mere notion of a loving Father-Creator became an outrage. That self-same deity had sacrificed her son to his Dad’s vocation,” he muses. We know, too, that Marigold died only after years succumbing to severe dementia. Thus Simon mourns Marigold because she represents all that remains of his son’s memory, but his mourning is complicated by the fact that Marigold as he knew her disappeared long ago, leaving him to bury a “being without being anymore.”

In the meantime, Evie’s looming presence provides a subtle, nuanced foil to his relationship with Marigold. Evie stands for youthfulness and desire while Marigold represents a higher, almost asexual companionship, but at the same time Evie’s arrival hints at Simon’s implied choice: he can remain in the woods, so to speak, or he can return to the world of human beings in spite of a grief that will, inevitably, remain.

Thus, in spite of its stylistic bagginess, Stacey’s novel is ultimately an absorbing and deeply felt portrait of mourning. Stacey deals with mourning not as an immediate state but as a process that may begin long before the death, may even exist in isolation from any particular dead person. Simon dwells on his guilt for wishing, at times, for Marigold to die. He explores the isolation of being an aging person cut off from his intellectual equal. He equivocates regarding his simultaneous longings for isolation and companionship, the latter of which drove him in the first place to join this company of long-ago friends. Stacey’s strength, in portraying this fluctuating mental state, is his ability to make Simon’s meditations at once soothing and disturbing.

A moment should be taken to grapple with Simon’s memories of his missionary days with Marigold in Africa— “Africa” generally referred to as a monolithic entity, occasionally accompanied by the adjective “dark” or “vast.” Stacey portrays Simon’s conflict over his role there, but this conflict in itself rings with imperialist rhetoric: he is deeply troubled by, and deeply excited by, the idea that he is bringing innocence of a Christian variety, to innocents, of a “primal” variety. At their best, these moments are written with self-awareness and contribute to the novel’s disconcertingly honest portrayal of an older, Oxford-educated Anglican priest. In recollecting debates with Marigold about the usefulness of his missions, we truly grasp the way in which Marigold’s death has robbed him of a certain practical perspective, leaving him with a passionate religious idealism that often leaves little room for empathy with real people. At their worst, these moments render Simon’s intelligence limp, substituting pure paternalism for the intellectual and emotional integrity that carries A Dark and Stormy Night.

Ultimately, reading A Dark and Stormy Night is like having a conversation with an intelligent old friend— engaging, impossible to leave, at times infuriating, and always thought-provoking.

 

By Eleanor Stern