Sunday, December 04, 2005
Book Review: Evil
Diane Bell's Evil tackles a most significant set of evils in our society but does so in a way which undermines its authenticity. Evil is set in a north-eastern United States Jesuit liberal arts college where the newly appointed Professor Dee P Scrutari, an expert in anthropology (I understand Bell is actually an anthropologist), turns her gaze on the tribe of male staff at the school. Professor Scrutari becomes interested in the previous occupant of her office but can't get a straight answer from anyone about what happened to her. She decides to find out the truth and joins with a team of marginalised colleagues - a liberation theology nun, a gay priest, and a Jew - to uncover the evil that stalks the religious studies department. The themes that the author explores are absolutely essential for Christians, in particular, to come to grips with. The evils uncovered as the plot develops have often been swept under the carpet by the institutional church and they need to be exposed to the light of day. Two things, however, undermined the power of the book for me. Firstly, Bell has chosen to use names for the characters which are plays on words and point to the character of the person. It is possible that the novel, as a whole, is meant to be humorous - a sort of parody - but, in my opinion, this undermines the reader's ability to genuinely engage with the characters and what is happening as the story unfolds. Secondly, the dialogues between characters is often unnatural. As I was reading the conversations I couldn't believe that the characters would actually construct their conversations the way they did. They sounded as though the characters were reading something rather than talking in a normal conversational style. This led to a feeling of inauthenticity as though the conversations were contrived and an opportunity to "preach" to or "teach" the reader. Overall, Bell seemed unable to decide whether the narrative would be serious or parody. This made the story difficult to engage with on an emotional level due to the incongruity between narrative and theoretical explanations given by characters. There were times, too, when I couldn't accept the amount the narrator seemed to know about some of the details. In my opinion, the narrative would have worked better if it had been written in the first person. Despite the deficiencies, however, Evil is worth reading for the criticism it makes of the way institutional religion has often covered, and even promoted, immorality under a veneer of righteousness.