336pp, hardback, £17.99
Reviewed by Caroline Sanderson
I liked this novel very much, though I wasn’t sure I would at first. It was enigmatic and elusive, and I couldn’t hear its voice. But very soon it reeled me in to believe in its singular gospel, much more effectively than its missionary hero could ever do.
Jenn Ashworth’s third novel (she was named one of the UK’s 12 best new novelists by BBC 2’s The Culture Show in 2011) covers one day in the life of the Leeke family, who are Lancastrian Mormons. It’s a momentous, not to say portentous day, because, having dodged the Eyjafjallajӧkull ash cloud, second son Gary is due to return from a two-year mission in Utah. Though his housebound mother Pauline – ‘a top hundred reviewer for kitchen equipment…she’s in the world but only virtually’ – wants his prodigal homecoming to be perfect, the troubled lives of her frustrated husband Martin, and her two other children – furious, pent-up Julian, and teenage Jeannie who nurses a calamitous secret – start to unravel on this very Friday. And even golden boy Gary, the toast both of his mother and the local Mormon Ward, feels an abject failure, having not succeeded in converting a single soul in the US. Events start to veer out of control almost as soon as he steps back over the home threshold. And ironically it is then, when the family volcano finally blows its top, that he proves his worth.
The Friday Gospels is bound to be widely described as the tale of a dysfunctional family. Actually, the Leekes don’t function as a family at all, except through the oleaginous conduit of their Church. Ashworth conveys this by skilfully allowing her family members separate chapters in which to relate the whole messy story in turn. She then neatly butt-joints their voices together so that each character hands on to the next, without communication or overlap. There are some awesomely awful scenes which sink into the memory: Jeannie at early morning seminary being taught the importance of chastity via a saliva-dampened cupcake; Gary on the plane home trying to proselytize to the man next to him who ends up selling him cleaning materials instead; Martin – infatuated with a fellow dog walker – smashing up a derelict greenhouse in the neglected garden; Julian thinking unholy thoughts whilst wielding his mechanic’s spanner. And Pauline, who confronts both her nemesis – and her salvation – on a memorably incontinent trip to the supermarket.
‘Put on the full armour of God that ye be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.’ Ashworth – herself brought up a Mormon – is much more interested in the chinks in that armour which eventually make it fall apart in the face of real life. And when, despite all the trouble and strife and the black-as-hell comedy, the love the Leeke siblings bear one another bursts through to enable the shocking but satisfying conclusion, it is very affecting. In fact, it’s a goddam miracle.