If you only read one novel this summer, let Ceremony of Innocence be it. Dorothy Cummings McLean has been entertaining hundreds of readers for years on various incarnations of her blog, and finally a publishing house has done the wider world a favour by making one of her full scale novels available in book form.
Although the most obvious peg to hang Ceremony of Innocence on is the style of Graham Greene, this is a fresh and original work in its own right. Whatever debts may be owed to Greene, in McLean, the atmosphere is less seedy, the drama more wholesome, the moral dilemmas sharper – and all leavened with flashes of comedy that are entirely McLean’s own.
Without giving away the plot – watch out, by the way, for clever flashbacks, as the Canadian/Scottish journalist narrator Catriona McClelland covers terrorist bombings across Germany, attends wild parties, splits up with her boyfriend, and comes under suspicion of involvement in the death of a student activist – let me tell you what else is striking about this book.
For one thing, the writing is so evocative. The naivety of young Western liberals in their sympathy for Islamic extremism is captured perfectly. Students too – their chat, their parties, their noughties wide-eyed cynicism. Catriona – cynical and hard-bitten, but vulnerable. Throughout, the dialogue is brilliant (including, I must say, the German/English and German/English/Scottish code-switching).
Then, the strong female characters – the one key protagonist who is beautiful, intelligent, and nevertheless very much in the background is not one of the women, but Dennis, Catriona’s unlikely boyfriend. It’s Catriona who is the complex character who does lots of things – has run-ins with neo-Nazis, wins popular and critical acclaim for her work, gets mired in intrigue, survives explosions – she’s likeable but with complicated edges, she’s deeply compromised but in nevertheless a very identifiable way. And the other characters driving the plot forward are Suzy, and Anna-Maria and Silke, even the GP and Aisha. Dennis, meanwhile, just provides home comforts and is the object of competition among other eligible women, in a delightful inversion of conventional characterisation.
And of course, the wrestling with big scary moral issues. War guilt – the bombing of Coventry, the bombing of Dresden. How violence breeds violence, the far right responding to home grown terrorism responding to interventionist foreign policy. Catriona living with Dennis and so also with prickles of conscience and social and ecclesiastical disapproval. And, throughout, how to deal with treachery – when Suzy brazenly betrayed Catriona in pursuing Dennis, when Catriona self-servingly hid information from Dennis, and, darkest of all, when somebody seems to have done something to lead to Suzy ending up dead. Complicity, betrayal, cowardice, selfishness… people doing things you know are wrong, but which seem in their complex circumstances to be almost unavoidable – but they know they’re wrong too, so guilt and unease abound.
Although some of these themes will be very familiar from Graham Greene, what McLean has done is to take the best of Greene, dust it down and give it some of her unique sparkle. There is nothing cosy or fluffy about Ceremony of Innocence, but the writing is stellar, and it will make you think.
(Ceremony of Innocence by Dororthy Cummings McLean – available from Amazon in hardback or kindle)