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Theo: A Novella - review

Theo: A Novella by Paul Torday is the second of two books I read on my recent break. It is a short pre-story to Torday's new release, Light Shining in the Forest, which uses characters from this novella.

I was attracted to this story initially because is has a theme of stigmata - a manifestation of the five wounds of Christ, believed by Catholics to be displayed by martyrs. I am not a religious person, but the idea of stigmata has always intrigued me, and made for good reading in other books such as Keeping Faith by Jodi Picoult. I wondered what route this book would take on the subject, and was even more interested when I found out the main character was a vicar going mad and experiencing supernatural nightmares, after his predecessor was institutionalized in a mental hospital for becoming "too holy".

There is a lot of religion in this book, as you would expect, but it is perhaps not in the way you expect it. John Elliott, the new vicar of St Joseph's, is a man questioning his faith. He is struggling with his inability to raise the number of his congregation to more than 16 people, and his wife makes no pretense at encouraging him to give up his vocation for a life elsewhere. He is in turmoil, and finds himself defeated in every effort he makes to enliven his parish.

Elsewhere, John Elliott's wife is teaching at the local school. John helps out now and then but is under very strict orders from the headmistress that there is no faith to be favoured over any other in her multi-cultural, and politically correct, school. This is put to the test when one of the children, Theo, starts displaying the wounds recognised by John as stigmata.

When the police are involved, they assume the boy has been subject to child abuse, despite the wounds no longer being visible when they arrive - and who is John to say otherwise? He seeks council with his peers who convince him he must have been mistaken in his assumption, but he is left wondering how Theo's wounds had disappeared so quickly.

It is then that the reader is thrown into a story of uncertainty - John goes to see his "mad" predecessor who seems to know about some disturbing - demonic even - events and dreams that John, too, has been experiencing. The madman tells John to protect Theo. That it is his duty. Then, Theo disappears.

I thoroughly enjoyed this short and exciting novella. It felt very British in it's portrayal of John's village life as a vicar in a place where faith has run dry, and I liked that when all else was a bit crazy, there were still conversations over the breakfast table and daily troubles of getting a car up a snowy hill.

I do, however, feel a little short changed! There we so many great insinuations in this book, so many allusions to things that never materialized, so many characters that had back stories that amounted to nothing! I want to know more about George! Why did he think he wasn't coming back? Why did he show up for a last sermon? I also want to know about that truck - why was it there? who was driving? I have sooo many questions. Was John mad?Was what he saw real? Was he just depressed? Hallucinating? Desperate? ARGH!

I will be buying Light Shining in the Forest in the hope of gleaning some answers, but I definitely like the idea of a novella preluding a larger piece of work. I only hope the full novel is as brilliant as this.

Highly recommended! 8/10 - perhaps higher if I didn't feel there were so many loose ends.

PS. This book is currently 99p on Amazon for Kindle users. A definite bargain!

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