“And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro.
Riddled with light.”
WB Yeats, The Cold Heaven
Cold Heaven was one of the first Brian Moore books that I remember reading. I was around 17 and something about it really sparked my imagination, meaning that I read the book several times in quick succession.
A re-read after thirty years hasn’t sparked quite the same enthusiasm but I am still impressed by this propulsive and perfectly paced novel about faith, reason and moral responsibility.
Cold Heaven, Moore’s 14th novel, features a bravura opening chapter. Marie Davenport and her husband Dr Alex Davenport are on holiday in Nice and are involved in a boating accident in the Baie des Anges. While Alex is swimming he is hit by a motor boat, leaving him near to death. Marie is distraught, not just because of the accident, but with guilt. She was planning to tell Alex that very day that she was leaving him for another physician, Daniel Bailey, with whom she has been having an affair.
After Alex dies in hospital of his injuries, Marie prepares to return to New York and begin preparations for his repatriation and funeral, when she is called back in to the hospital. There she is informed that Alex’s body has disappeared from the hospital morgue. Not only that, but when she returns to their hotel room, there are signs that Alex has been there, taken his belongings and disappeared.
How has Alex seemingly come back from the dead? And why does Marie believe that it is because of something she ‘didn’t do’? Moore lets the uncertainty linger and the reader imagines some kind of conspiracy or intrigue. Marie constantly refers back to Carmel, where something happened to her exactly a year previously, and when she finally tracks her Lazarus-like husband back to America and to a motel in Carmel, she is forced to face something she has been trying to deny.
The year before, Marie was in Carmel secretly meeting Daniel and saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The heavenly vision told her to tell the local clergy and make sure that the site (a rock on the Monterey peninsula) became a place of pilgrimage. Marie, an atheist despite her Catholic schooling, did nothing. As Alex lies ill in a motel room, seemingly dying and coming back to life, and resisting medical help for fear of becoming known as a medical freak, Marie becomes convinced that she is being punished for her inaction and that the only way to save Alex’s life is to do what the apparition asked of her. As she involves her lover Daniel in Alex’s care, she sees the three of them as puppets, their strings being pulled by a vengeful God, forcing her to believe against her will.
They have made contact. They didn’t give Alex back to me as part of a bargain. They don’t make bargains. They will use him to prove their case. They will make him into a miracle that will mock his whole career. They will destroy my life with Daniel. I disobeyed them. They will have no mercy.
Moore sets up a fascinating scenario in Cold Heaven. What happens when someone with no faith is forced to become a believer? Can a sense of guilt guide one’s moral responsibility? Another question to consider is whether or not this whole situation is borne from Marie’s guilt over her affair. For the majority of the novel, Moore seems to leave open the possibility of a more naturalistic interpretation of this most supernatural phenomena. As Marie rails against a confirmation of what she has experienced, she is offered a way out by a local priest, Father Ned, who is looking into her claims.
“You know, Mrs Davenport, you still have the right to refuse. It’s basic to Christian theology that man is free to say no to God. Miracles and miraculous appearances are only signs which solicit belief. That’s all they are. Remember, the Church doesn’t require anyone to believe in miracles.”
The narrative seems to eschew this reading however and as the novel builds to its conclusion, Moore seems to confirm that the apparition is real and that Marie is being called to finally act. The certainty of the novel, which so appealed to me when I was younger, seems to me more confining now. Moore appears to be suggesting that one can turn away from religion, and in particular Catholicism, but only on the basis of accepting its tenets in the first place. A lack of ambiguity seems to undo some of the tension that the book manages to build up in its first half, yet the strength of the initial premise and Moore’s trademark subtlety with pacing and plot drive the novel to a satisfying end.
In terms of characterisation there is a lot to admire here. As always, Moore excels when he places his players at a moment of crisis and Cold Heaven is another example of one of his strong female leads. Like Mary Dunne or Sheila Redden in The Doctor’s Wife, Moore inhabits the emotional questioning of Marie’s mind with sensitivity and clarity. While the two men in her life remain relatively side-lined, Moore sketches life at a local convent with sensitivity and surprising warmth and injects some humour with a dog-walking, inquisitive motel guest.
Given the stark realism of a lot of Brian Moore’s writing, this miracle-led narrative may not appeal to many readers of his work, but he was never a writer to be constrained, either by genre or by expectation and Cold Heaven is another work of masterful skill and verve.
Why not join in next month when we will be reading Brian Moore’s 1981 novel The Temptation of Eileen Hughes
You can also check out the great events happening throughout the year at the official Brian Moore at 100 website.
Brian Moore’s birthday falls on 25 August and Paradasso Theatre will be hosting a series of events in Belfast in conjunction with his centenary. You can find out more at their website.
Cold Heaven was Book 13 of 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!