17 June 2012

Susanna Tamaro, Answer Me, 2001

A worthwhile collection of stories that explores that heavily populated border between Catholicism and atheism. There is something precarious about all the characters in these three novelettes, raised on religion yet finding themselves in long-term situations where religious faith does not help: in ‘Hell Does Not Exist’, easily the best story, an abused wife attempts to protect her young son from his violent father, and yet as a teenager the son becomes the cause of personal devastation. In ‘Answer Me’ an orphaned girl with a troubled past searches for signs that she is loved while cultivating an inner hardness that allows her to carry on, and in ‘The Burning Forest’ a widower gives an account of the unravelling of his marriage while seeking the forgiveness of his estranged daughter. I was rather taken with these stories, or rather the Stygian voice with which Tamaro relates them. They were certainly not comfortable reads – I expect for people with faith they would be even less so – and their quiet power is both startling and a little disturbing. This is fiction that doesn’t shout its atheism, just quietly points out how Christianity can indeed be either an unhelpful distraction when dealing with some life’s major problems, or even the cause of them. A dark book, and necessarily so.  PY


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