The winner of this year University of Wales Dylan Thomas prize, announced last month, is an old-fashioned book. This was my first impression of Lucy Caldwell’s The Meeting Point, which the novelty of it being my first novel on an e-reader (Sony) did nothing to dispel. The story of losing my e-book virginity is simple: it was an impulse buy for a journey; I also had to carry a heavy art book, and the device was borrowed. I am not a convert: I couldn’t get a handle on the novel’s length (it felt short) and I seemed to be turning pages too often. Also my initial excitement at the prospect of making electronic notes evaporated when I only managed to make squiggles on the page as though it were an expensive version of Etch-a-Sketch, rather than creating detailed observations ready to cut-and-paste into a review. So rather than replacing my main love, Sony will only be allowed on business trips, if he behaves himself.
There’s converts aplenty, though, in The Meeting Point, since its protagonist, Ruth, is the wife of a northern Irish evangelical Anglican vicar set on a mission to smuggle bibles and other weapons of mass conversion from Bahrain into Saudi Arabia. Troubled teenage Noor has been sent by her English mother to the island to stay with her born-again orthodox Muslim father, Dr al-Husayn. Noor, however, falls headlong under the influence of the golden Irish Christian couple who have moved for a few months into her ‘compound’, and despite the ways in which she, as a vulnerable minor, is exploited by Ruth, has become a born-again young woman by close of play. The (too numerous) bible quotations kick in by page 11 (on Sony Reader’s old lady large print setting), and we quickly realise that this is a novel about faith, especially when the setting shifts from rural Ulster to the Persian Gulf. But Caldwell confounds any readers’ assumptions that they may be in for a dose of Middle Eastern fundamentalism or critique of cultural mores. The Arab characters are either westernised (Ruth’s love interest Farid), rediscovering their faith (Dr al-Husayn) or ‘happy… and unembarrassed’ to be a second wife (Maryam).
Either Caldwell is a Christian herself (I noted Spitalfields Alpha course among the acknowledgements), or she has managed the feat of entering the mindset. Ruth opens the story with the revelation that her wedding was brought forward because she was pregnant. We start to wonder why she is complaining so much about the loss of a harvest wedding to an early spring one until we realise both parents feel a ‘quiet guilt… at not having waited until their wedding night… as they had ought to.’ Ruth’s reference to Bible readings, prayers and sermons to guide her behaviour displays an almost exotic mentality for liberal, secular readers. Having set her goals so high, she is very nearly hung for a sheep as she gets reckless once her prized virtue starts to slip.
The Epic of Gilgamesh and evidence associating the sacred island paradise or ‘Holy Dilmun’ with Bahrain as the source of the Garden of Eden story, greatly enriches The Meeting Point, widening its references beyond the notion of Ruth’s Christian fall from grace. The title itself is a reference to the confluence of rivers (including the Tigris and Euphrates) said to water the Garden. Deft use of imagery also unites the novel. Broad cultural symbolism surrounding stones is beautifully handled, as is the pencil-size roll of paper, variously used for love messages between strangers and to slip the gospel over the border. Once we get used to Ruth’s measured tones and bed in to Noor’s urgent voice and story, this is a fantastically structured page-turner with depths.
This is a version of Gwen Davies’ Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 3 December 2011.
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