This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
14.03.19 / Serpent Tail / Contemporary Fiction / Hardback / 256pp / 978-1788161190
Target Audience: Readers who appreciate relevant cultural religious and societal issues and how much they still impact day to day life.
About Our Lady Of Everything
Margaret O’Shea never thought she’d find herself praying for the life of an English soldier. But with her grandson Eoin fighting in Iraq, Margaret can’t do anything but say the rosary and hope that he comes home unscathed. His fiancée Katarzyna is a good Catholic girl, even if she goes to Nottingham’s Polish church rather than its Irish one.
What Margaret doesn’t know is that Kathy’s way of coping with Eoin’s absence goes beyond prayer or reading horoscopes. Her friend David has been studying Chaos Magic to distract himself from his new post-PhD career selling figurines of rat men to acne-ridden teenagers and wants Kathy to participate in his Rite of Internet Love. But everyone gets more chaos than they bargained for when a video of a wounded Iraqi and a soldier who looks a lot like Eoin starts circulating.
This is a sharp, wry and moving debut novel about love, faith and what normal people do when they don’t have any of the answers.
Susan Finlay’s Our Lady Of Everything is a thought provoking, tumultuous and insightful exploration of the choices we make because of our faith, educational background and cultural beliefs. It also delves into how we live with these decisions for better or worse. Set in Britain during the Iraq war, a very emotional time for many countries and generations, this was certainly one of the biggest tests of faith for many cultures in recent history.
I can’t believe how different 2004 feels and how strange yet still very familiar it was. It was only 14 years ago yet it feels like a different era! Where the internet was just blooming and racism/sexism/xenophobia was still very much out of control and needed addressing more than ever. It was absolutely the perfect backdrop to tell this story, I do love it when a setting is utilised. It was also good to see the characters that SF has chosen to populate her story are varied and distinct making the story meaningful, relatable and compelling.
Margaret O’Shea is a deeply Catholic woman who survived the Troubles in Ireland remaining steadfast throughout loss and loneliness. Her grandson Eoin is a British soldier at war in Iraq, who acts on his differences and faces the consequences. Katarzyna is a young British woman of Polish heritage who is due to marry Eoin but his silence gives her concerns both their futures. Stanislaw is Katarzyna’s father and a survivor of communist Poland, a joker who still reflects on his tragic past. Meghana is an academic British muslim who is caught between Nottingham and India, two very different ways to view life. An analytical mind trying to find her emotional network. Finally there is David, who is investigating his own version of syncretism, attempting to alter the way we decide (and act on) our beliefs and traditions in many different combinations.
This novel is brimming with narratives and SF achieves so much in such a short time, I was impressed that SF managed to make every individual story feel unique to the character. It shows real talent and inspiration to craft a multi-layered yet harmonious story. Susan Finlay is a master at subtext, double-edged meaning and subtle satire. Taking notions and concepts already explored in the story and twisting new meanings within the narrative (Kathy and the eggs was a perfect example). There was never a sentence wasted here. I enjoyed the way SF included the many emotional and appropriate translations to what several of the characters were trying to articulate when interacting with others.
I also really liked the way that each story overlapped, swapping fluidly with each interaction. Each of the characters are connected, they are all aware of each other in both positive and negative ways, some moving and definitely some that are inflammatory. United by war, education, family or separated by religion, racism or expectations. Susan Finlay knows how to craft character interaction and that is what drove me to reading the entire novel. Stanislaw is by far my favourite, I wish I knew a man like that in my life. So sure and proud yet knows the world in different and harder ways. I certainly connected with a few individuals and felt challenged by others opinions so it tested me as a reader. Eoin’s plot (and by extension Margaret’s) was the hardest to read and digest, I also felt it was the least concluded. There were very little insight into Eoin’s time in Iraq which was a little frustrating. It is so short and yet potent, I would have liked some more insights into that element of the story.
During this novel I was moved, hurt, amused, inspired and confused all at the same time. I thought David’s story arc was the most difficult. I still don’t fully understand his study of Magik (with a k) and ritualistic approaches to choosing religious beliefs, attempting to create a random process of deciding faith and cultural tradition. The opening scene threw me a little I have to admit! I sort of held on to what SF was going for throughout the novel within Dave’s plot line but I did lose track when the various and odd rituals started popping up all over the place. I don’t like losing a thread such as that in a novel so that was definitely a downer for me.
All that aside, I picked this novel up for a narrative that explores nationality, cultural identity and religious beliefs/traditions and that is what I got so I felt Our Lady Of Everything was a success. Susan Finlay has included so superbly harsh themes and events to stimulate the reader and encourage them to put themselves in other people’s shoes. That is a reason most of us pick up a book and that is the main attraction, in my opinion, of this novel. I have very little understanding of religion, symbolism and prayer so it was interesting to immerse myself in these values. Our Lady Of Everything is an impressive debut for what it achieves and Susan Finlay deserves the success coming her way.
I recommend Our Lady Of Everything to all readers who look for their views to be tested, those readers who understand culture differences and traditions or enjoy provocative narratives. If this is Susan’s first attempt of a novel that I can’t imagine what she has in store for us next. I can’t wait to see!
About Susan Finlay
Susan Finlay is an artist and writer. She studied Fine Art at Camberwell and The Royal College of Art, London, and has since lived in Athens and Berlin. She has written for the Guardian, The South London Gallery, and Akerman Daly. Her other work includes Objektophilia, a novella serialized in Egress magazine, and Isadora, a solo exhibition at MoHA, Austin. Our Lady Of Everything is Susan Finlay’s debut novel.