The Keys Of The Kingdom
I read an extract of this book last August, preceded to buy the novel that Autumn, took it on holiday in the Winter and never actually read it, so along with a couple of other books, I was determined to "do" it.
Hodder reprinted a series of older books that had maybe been forgotten over time The Keys Of The Kingdom among them, and labelled them 'Great Reads' and several others on the list have aroused my curiosity, so they are probably coming soon to a blog near you. What did I think of this one?
Firstly, the novel misrepresents itself "The Bestselling Novel Set in China..." It's slightly over 400 pages long, the first 200 pages are not set in China and neither are roughly the last 60. Excuse me for being a pedant, but that's a novel where the action goes to China for a bit of it if you ask me.
I preferred the earlier part of the novel, dealing with the childhood of Francis Chisholm the novel's protagonist, who later, due to a combination of circumstances enters the priesthood.
Now this novel was published in 1941, before Vatican II, and behaviour which personally I find normal and commendable in a priest is classed as 'renegade' and 'difficult', and you feel very sorry for Father Chisholm, who against some of the other priests featured feels like the only genuine Christian. He has a well rounded belief system coloured in part by exposure to Protestantism in his youth, atheism among his friends and later the writings of Confucius in China. I don't know whether Cronin did this purposely to please allcomers to the novel.
What makes the novel different from The Vintner's Luck, is while God has a distinctly personal feel in that novel, I felt the tradition, dogma and bigotry of the old church seeping through the pages of this novel, with the exception of Chisholm himself.
But here also, I have issue, Chisholm, particularly in the China segment is presented almost as a saint. He is the ultimate, the perfect priest, but I find to deny him anything much in the way of weakness, vice or sin is somehow to deny him humanity.
Despite this the novel is eminently readable and you don't finding yourself slogging at it willing the end to arrive. In it's earlier section Cronin deals with a crime, that he couldn't have possibly been frank about in his era without risking controversy or censorship, with great skill, so that the reader is fully aware of what has taken place without the gory details being spelled out. I feel that this is the mark of a good writer. However, I was surprised at the seemingly automatic and total forgiveness shown to the culprit, though he is shown to have received divine rather than human retribution.
Overall I think I would give this book a 7/10