A little girl, a wreck of a mother, an absent father, a vicious madman, and a hermit priest who bears it all and pays the price.
Gifts Unexpected. By Stephen Hand. (HC, PB & Kindle). Reviewed by Matthew Anger (c) TCRNews.
“In Gifts Unexpected, Mr. Hand traces the lives of a young girl and her divorced parents. We are immediately confronted with people are who are morally ambivalent. Stock “good” and “evil” characters might do for a fantasy piece or detective story, but a serious novel must deal by and large with people who evince a quantity of mixed behavior.
This is not to say there are no saints (or devils). We witness a truly holy individual in the guise of the urban hermit priest named Fr. Joseph. Even then, saints are not people who tread the ground without getting dust on their feet or who are utterly deprived of the human mannerisms that we find so congenial.
On the other hand, a less than saint-like character is Juan, the operator of a bar in a bad part of town. His establishment is frequented by loose women and he sports tattoos in doubtful taste, but he also does a good turn for a infirm old lady who rents a room above his bar, who is one of Fr. Joseph’s spiritual charges.
To describe such ambivalence is not to endorse it. The question is not one of the object but of its treatment. A believing Catholic and a liberal atheist can both approach the topic of suicide with all its grim facts but draw from it very different conclusions. This was clear in the divergence of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, two very modern novelists, who were once good friends until it became clear to Waugh just how infected Greene was with the worldly spirit that was spreading in the post-war Church. Piers Paul Read says of their reactions to Vatican II:
Waugh saw it as a total disaster: “Pray God I will never apostasize”…. Greene, on the other hand, appears to have entered into “the spirit of Vatican II”…. [and embraced] Karl Rahner’s notion of “anonymous Christianity” in novels such as A Burnt Out Case and The Honorary Consul. In the hands of a devout writer like Mr. Hand, complex characterization helps us to understand ourselves through the lives of others.
One is reminded of Fr. Frederick Faber’s wonderful sermon “On Not Taking Scandal.” While we should never “give scandal” to others through our behavior, Fr. Faber was also telling us that to be a Christian is not to go about clucking our tongues about others’ bad behavior like the Scribes and Pharisees. While we must judge situations and respond appropriately, we cannot judge a person’s hidden intentions or always be fully aware of why they act the way they do.
In Gifts Unexpected, the dysfunctionality of the divorced parents is now considered so normal as to be mundane, yet their lives are set on a course for spiritual self-destruction. In considering their faults, however, we may well reflect on our own past actions, especially if we are converts or reverts to the Faith.
The approach to evil in a Catholic story is neither to ignore nor to wallow in it, but to move beyond it. The debauched modern who wants to share his spiritual misery with others exults in the idea of triumphant evil, like the seventeen remakes of slasher films where the immortal psycho-killer rises again and again to claim more victims in an on-screen orgy of blood. The film-makers seek to mock death. Because they cannot truly cope with the fact of evil they must ridicule life and virtue.
By sharp contrast, Gifts Unexpected preaches a message of redemption. Mr. Hand puts the following words into the mouth of Fr. Joseph, who is consoling a mother on the loss of her child: “When evil temporarily prevails, our hearts rebel, and we cry out to the Heart of the universe. Our hearts do not lie when we cry out against such evil. This rebelling, this outrage, this collapsing into tears and thirst for justice is the proof that the Promise, the Gift, is true; it is proof… that evil is an intrusion into God’s good creation, and not something normal.”
The Catholic understands the classical concept of tragedy. It is the idea that the goodness inherent in the person or the action transcends any material loss that may be suffered. This stands at the very opposite pole from the prideful self-pitying that is the raison d’être of modern “art,” wherein the individual denies reliance on anything greater than himself and thus even self-destruction, as an assertion of one’s own “empowerment,” is preferable to dependence on some outside, greater good. Undoubtedly the theologians are right when they say we create our own Hell.
In contrast to the modernist mood, Mr. Hand’s objective is to “work Traditional Catholicism back into the world via stories.” He has succeeded admirably in a book whose strength lies in its powerful understatement, its realistic suspense and its honesty. Gifts Unexpected is a heartening revival of that Catholic literature which was a respected and influential force in the days when all action, including cultural endeavors, was seen as part of the overall missionary imperative. —Matthew Anger