For my birthday I received a copy of the recently released Ceremony of Innocence by Dorothy Cummings McLean. I'd read the synopses and was intrigued, but wanted to find out just where the author went with all those elements in her debut novel. I was pleased by the quality of the writing – the story drew me in easily and engaged me in the plot and characters. This is important, because if “Catholic” authors are going to escape the “Catholic literature ghetto” (you know – that place where people buy “Catholic works” in order to support the authors, not because they necessarily enjoy the stories), then first and foremost the authors need to be high quality artists. If this is what McLean can do in her first novel, I have high hopes for her later efforts.
The story takes place in and around Frankfurt, Germany in 2008. The protagonist is Catriona McLelland, a woman in her 30s who is Canadian by birth but was raised in Scotland and now works as a field reporter. (Though Catriona isn't an example of the author writing herself into her own story, it seems clear that Miss McLean is drawing on her own experience as a foreign journalist to flesh out her characters.) “Cat”, as she is known, lives the life of a modern urban professional. She is divorced and awaiting word on her annulment, lives with her decade-younger university student boyfriend, and spends time in clubs leveraging her low-level celebrity status to flit about the edges of the privileged class of the wealthy and noble.
McLean paints a picture of postmodern, post-Christian European culture that is gritty, dingy, and a little depressing. Cat herself is no heroine – she is a “tribal” Catholic who knows but does not live by the tenets of her faith. She cannot claim ignorance. She has a doctorate, understands the subtleties and nuances of the Faith, works for a Catholic news agency, and writes “spiritual” books on the side. But despite this knowledge, her life far more reflects the values of the world in which she lives than the ideals of the Kingdom of God. She's casual about her occasional heavy drinking and drug use as well as her concubinage with her boyfriend . McLean handles the character well. Because the story is told from Cat's perspective in the first person, the reader is naturally sympathetic. But as the plot unfolds, one gets a better picture of Catriona – her condescending treatment of her boyfriend, her dalliance with the amoral “butterfly set”, the implicit cynicism of her double life as a spiritual and religion writer who lives in such moral confusion. I found myself sympathetic to Cat in the fullest sense, as uneasy and ambivalent about her identity and behaviour as I can imagine such a person would be herself.
The plot centers around the entry of Suzy into Cat's settled existence. Suzy is an idealistic young westerner who also hails from Canada, which in her mind gives her a natural relationship with Cat. Suzy has decided political opinions as well as (eventually) an eye on Cat's boyfriend. Out of respect for their friendship, Suzy is above board with Cat about this attraction, which introduces tension into their relationship but does not end it. The jaded, sophisticated Cat initially views Suzy as a dilettante, a child with a cause and a credit card. But as the story unfolds and they are thrown together in some very unusual circumstances, hints of deeper and more disturbing things begin to surface. I won't give away any critical details, but suffice it to say that it turns out that Suzy is involved in some ugly stuff and comes to a bad end (something that is known from the opening pages – the driving question of the book is at whose hands?) The most compelling part of the story is watching the moral dilemma in which Cat finds herself as she struggles with the disturbing knowledge she gains as the tale unfolds. This tension is particularly acute when Cat's boyfriend leaves her for Suzy – a development that has almost nothing to do with Suzy's allure and everything to do with Cat's waffling and duplicitous treatment of him.
As I pondered the story and its intricacies, one theme that became increasingly clear was how Cat was the mother of Suzy. Not literally, of course – the two women were only about 10 years apart in age – but philosophically. There will always be high-minded crusaders with young heads on their young shoulders, but ideally they would be assisted by wiser elders who, if they haven't always walked paths of righteousness, at least gained wisdom from the lessons learned when they didn't. Cat walks in neither righteousness nor wisdom, and thus can provide neither good guidance nor good example when Suzy appears, searching for a life of high ideals and stringent standards, a cause to live up to and sacrifice for. When she looked at Catholics like Catriona, she saw nothing of that, and thus looked elsewhere. If Cat and those like her had been living a vibrant and dynamic faith, people like Suzy might have an alternative to dangerous places where error is taught.
Even though this type of story isn't my first choice to read, I found Ceremony of Innocence a good novel, and hope to see more from Miss McLean in years to come. One bit of technical advice I might offer: the story is told in a flashback mode that gets a little confusing at times. It opens in the immediate aftermath of some dramatic developments, and then goes back to fill in the background of how matters came to this point. However, this flicking back and forth between the “current” situation and the “past” that explains it happens at several points in the story, and I struggled at times to figure out just what “present” I was in. I understand this technique, having used it myself, but with a story of this length and complexity it proved a little clumsy. Perhaps a more chronologically linear storyline would help the next work – either that, or clearer delineations between what time the reader is in. But this is not a showstopper, and those who love thrillers set in exotic locations and filled with dark secrets will not be disappointed by Dorothy McLean.Ceremony of Innocence by Dorothy Cummings McLean, 2013 Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-731-7