Brian Moore published No Other Life in 1993 when he was at the height of his writing career. The Booker nomination for Lies of Silence in 1990 had raised his profile and No Other Life was a great critical success. William Trevor in the New York Review of Books claimed that ‘Moore has written nothing as subtle, or as perfectly sustained.’
No Other Life is Moore’s eighteenth novel and is set in the near future on the fictional island of Ganae. Clearly based on the real life events in the early 90s surrounding Haiti’s president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Moore’s telling centres on Jeannot, a brilliant black boy extracted from rural poverty by Father Michel, a Canadian missionary who narrates his story.
Jeannot, whom Father Paul Michel looks on as a son, becomes a charismatic priest, who thanks to his enormous following amongst the island’s poor, becomes embroiled in island politics as he speaks out against his country’s leadership, corrupt army, the mulatto elite and American and Western business interests. Jeannot also becomes embroiled with Rome, where the debate is around whether a priest should concern himself with the material existence of his parishioners, or concentrate on their immortal souls. As Jeannot becomes more involved in political life, Paul watches as his protégée is expelled from his order only to emerge as the overwhelmingly popular choice for president after the death of the brutal dictator Jean-Marie Doumergue.
Jeannot is a skilled orator who emulates Christ in his public speeches. When an assassination attempt on him fails, it is seen by his followers to be a miracle, casting him in the role of not only saint, but also messiah. However, once in power, Jeannot seems to succumb to the same tyrannical actions as his predecessor; creating a loose army of thugs and acolytes, mounting show trials for his wealthy enemies and fermenting riotous behaviour. As Father Paul tries to remain loyal to his beloved protégé, he finds his allegiance not only wavering, but also putting his very life in danger. He is concerned about the conflation between Jeannot and the Messiah and is horrified by the bloodshed that Jeannot’s preaching seems to incite.
The question that lies at the centre of the novel is an age-old one. Does the end justify the means and should someone be held accountable for the consequences of their words and actions, whether those consequences are intended or accidental. In short, Father Paul must wrestle with his feelings for Jeonnot – is he a saint – the matter of ends and means, of intended and accidental consequences – comes down to this: Is Jeannot a modern-day saint or something much more troubling?
While the style and setting of No Other Life could not be further from Moore’s earlier Belfast-set novels, thematically it maintains his interest in people who find themselves at a moral and philosophical breaking point as the foundations of their belief are beginning to crumble. In a pivotal scene, Father Michel returns to Canada to visit his dying mother and to his shock, she renounces her faith on her deathbed.
“Last week when I knew I was dying I saw the truth…I have prayed all my life. I believed in God, in the Church, I believed I had a soul that was immortal. But I have no soul. When we die, there is nothing. That’s why I sent for you…It’s not too late. Promise me. Leave the priesthood now…There is no other life.”
This is a profound moment for Father Paul. He has already had doubts about the Church’s reaction to what Jeannot is doing, and now he is himself doubting both his faith in God and his faith in Jeannot’s sanctity. Yet he throws his fate in with Jeannot, loyal to the end despite his reservations. What Moore does wonderfully here, as in his other books, is explore his characters tendency to idealise themselves and the choices they make, until they have to eventually face the raw facts of their reality.
A lot of the substance and shrewdness of No Other Life is how Moore places no judgment on Jeannot and his actions. He presents a multiplicity of perspectives on this central character, whose thoughts are never disclosed, creating a wonderful sense of ambiguity about Jeannot’s motives. To the black poor he is a Messiah, come to save them from their material suffering, as Christ did.
To them … he was God’s Messenger. These lives of poverty, of endless toil, of children’s early deaths, of storms that washed away the meagre crops, of soldiers and bleus who beat and pillaged, were, in that room, on that day, transformed into the promise of a future life.
To the local mulatto elite he is a scourge, intent on taking revenge for the decades of oppression of his people. To Rome, he is a public relations nuisance and to his political rivals he is a cunning arriviste, hiding his true ambition in a cloak of compassion. Moore presents all these views as valid, and none can be entirely dismissed, meaning the reader is left to construct their own vision of who this man really is.
While not technically a thriller, No Other Life is a propulsive narrative. As in Lies of Silence, Moore’s writing is so subtle that the story seems to move with its own astonishing momentum. Characters are sketched with an incredible depth and you feel at times like they could sustain a novel of their own. The only slight misstep is the introduction of Caroline Lambert, the wife of one of the ruling classes, whose inclusion feels like a more calculated way to explore Father Paul’s feelings of inadequacy.
The novel’s final third veers slightly from intellectual thriller to adventure territory but is done with a light touch. It is to Moore’s credit that, by the end, Jeannot remains as much of a mystery as ever, with Father Paul having to face the hard truth of his part in the whole complicated saga. As Jeannot’s cousin confronts him with an uncomfortable truth – ‘you took him away, you made him what he was’ – Paul can only accept that he will never know if there could have been another life for either of them.
No Other Life is a tightly plotted and absorbing thriller, interrogating questions of faith, loyalty and the political clash of different cultures all rooted in a world of believable characters and a vivid sense of place.
Why not join in next month when we will be reading Brian Moore’s 1983 novel Cold Heaven
You can also check out the great events happening throughout the year at the official Brian Moore at 100 website.
No Other Life was my sixth read for my 20 Books of Summer reading challenge.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!