Review by Victor Lee Austin
By H.S. Cross
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
pp. 525, $30.
What does the title of this book mean? It is the nickname, spoken by the boys just so — “Grievous,” sans honorific — of a housemaster at St. Stephen’s Academy in Yorkshire in the year 1931. St. Stephen’s is a boys’ boarding school with a scandalous past, a dingy present, and an unexpected interiority. It also has, for part of this year 1931, a girl in its midst, one Cordelia, goddaughter of housemaster John Grieves. Cordelia’s mother (affliction unclear), who suffers quack medicine (have the “treatments” of 1931 ever been so frightfully evoked, where mercury is taken as health-producing but penicillin is feared?), was and remains the one whom Grieves would love. Grieves, a widower, is corresponding also with the mother of one of his schoolboys (herself a widow and a nurse). As a boy, Grieves grew up in the home of Jamie Sebastian, St. Stephen’s present headmaster, with Jamie’s sisters and bishop-father, where strange loves and longings were had and continue.
As you see, the book is a universe of emotion and action, of thought and repentance, all connected to John Grieves, who at one time put his life together by becoming a pacifist — he did it for love of Cordelia’s mother — and whose life, along with his pacifism, are now going, wrenchingly, to turn to dust.
But the title also means the adjective, applied in Anglican worship to one’s sins, as these boys would have spoken in chapel, “which we most grievously have committed.” It’s the human condition of wrongness, and I cannot think of another contemporary novel that takes it so seriously as Grievous. The author is a friend of mine, and so I know that she is someone who takes the reality of Christian faith seriously, and who has herself drawn from its depths when she was plunged into her own. But one does not need biography to get Grievous. What is happening here is the fusion of human life and salvation’s bloody story; something hard and, because hard, more real than the usual stories we tell ourselves.
It is a long novel, of such a length as one would not recommend it casually. I recall Eva Brann reviewing Vikraim Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which weighs in at some 1,300 pages. Brann said the novel would take three weeks of your life, pulling you into a world parallel to your own. It would be a huge amount of time, she said, but worth it. I took her advice and still have my copy, carried through three moves and read that many times. Cross’s Grievous, at but 500 pages, would still take a week or so of your life. It is not casually that I recommend it, but earnestly.
Earnestly, because our world, if we look at it squarely, is one that can only make us grieve. Thomas Gray Riding, student, has some treasures in a beat-up box that is itself a bit of disguised treasure — it had been his late father’s. Those treasures are letters, and a story he is writing that contains secrets of his own life, and other things that we do not know. It is hidden in a forbidden place, and to rescue it he breaks rules, implicates other boys in wrongdoing, causes harm, and then tries to lie to protect the truth.
And then he comes to himself. In a breathtaking passage which shows Cross knows that an adolescent (as we would call him) can have a penetrating conscience, Thomas thinks through those things that he has done, and not done, and reckons himself to the conclusion that there is no health in him. He has the question — the existential question, the every-boy and every-girl and every-one-of-us question: Will I have another chance? Or is this the end of it? Are second chances real, or have I ruined it all?
How do we humans get “sorted out,” how is it that we might move from and through and even beyond our sins? What is the remedy? Cross is clear, between the lines, that such would take the suffering and death of one who called God his Father, yet she is no preacher. The truth has to be got at by these characters themselves, by whatever path it takes. Similar work was done by Flannery O’Connor, say, or Walker Percy, although I would place Cross closer to the Scottish novelist Muriel Spark: the extraordinary ordinary. Her style, however, is like none of these: strong, abrupt, demanding. In its use of understatement it is rather biblical: A character speaks, and we might not even be sure which character it is at first. We only later wonder if he might have meant more than we understood.
Corporal punishment is very much part of this world. Grieves has tried to function differently, eschewing all violence. But when Gray is caught in his misdeeds, caught further in his stubborn silence followed by truth that seems a lie (because of the silence), Grieves is ordered to give 12 lashes to Gray, double the normal severest punishment. The order is delivered by the headmaster as he departs on important business. To do this is to break Grieves. He discovers anger within himself, then is sick over his falling, then turns to drink, more and more, to “drops,” to intravenous (what crude procedures) in a back-alley dope shop, with predictable dire consequence. The reader wants to grieve over Grieves, the housemaster sinking ever more grievously.
Our world is squeamish, and I would venture rightly so, over the use of corporal punishment. But in our efforts to be less harsh we doubtless have created our own horrors, not least being our acquiescence in middling reality without hope of true salvation. Cross dares the reader to consider the toughness of salvation, the blood of it, and the way we may need for love to be harsh in order to be saved.
And if you take her dare, you will find that Grievous is strangely hopeful. Indeed, it is a work of love for our demented world.
Canon Victor Lee Austin is theologian-in-residence for the Diocese of Dallas.