I’m happy to note that A Parliament of Monsters has been reviewed quite favorably in the St. Austin Review’s latest issue. (September/October 2012)
Views and Reviews
A Parliament of Monsters
By Gail Caress
Beachhead Books, 2011
413 pp., $17.95
Reviewed by Deirdre Littleton
Set in present-day America and Ireland, Gail Caress’ new novel, A Parliament of Monsters, follows young mother and recently-widowed Claire O’Connell as she copes with the shocking discovery that her husband Michael’s tragic
death was no accident, and finds herself and her son targeted by a dangerous scientific neopagan cult. Claire learns, after Michael’s death, that he had previously been involved in an Irish neopagan cult which was seeking to unite the ritual practices of the ancient Druids with modern-dry technology, for the purpose of creating an intelligent machine. As mother and son flee and ultimately confront the destruction wreaked by this group, Claire simultaneously suffers an interior battle of skepticism and despair brought on by the tragedies in her own life, including her husband’s death and her own crippling medical condition with which she was recently diagnosed. The battle between good and evil, being waged interiorly and on a global level, is encapsulated in the recurring image of an ancient and ornate chess set given to Claire’s young son Patrick by his father. The story covers a broad range of interests, exploring such unique subjects as the ancient Druid practices in Ireland, the neopagan revival, the gypsy culture of America and Ireland, and the uses of mathematical numerology and scientific development, all geared toward a fuller understanding of the place that God holds in the modern world –or better said: the place that modernity holds in God’s world.
The cynical perspective from which Caress chose to write her story is brilliant. Claire is a young mother beset by catastrophes from all sides, and she has no room in her heart to believe in a God when all that she knows and loves in her life is collapsing in shambles around her. Caress presents Catholic themes, but always carefully and through the eyes of a skeptic, one who is unable to believe. One of the finest and most human characters of her novel, Karl Burgmann, comes to Claire’s aid and subtly reveals, through his own suffering and admirable strength, the verity and value of faith in God. No belief is forced on the reader; faith in God is hardly even suggested, just observed, and thus Claire and the reader together come to discover truth gradually and definitively, each in his own time.
Caress’ themes are so effectively transmitted because of her artistic, enthralling word choice; she has truly come close to mastering the art of language. The book is written with such precise, poetic wording that I was astonished to discover that this is Caress’ first novel. Like all great writers, she clearly learned from the best, for her story is imbued with allusions to timeless works of literature. The most central references are Dante’s Inferno and Wordsworth’s Prelude, both of which play key roles in the story, as well as illuminating the significance of the plot on an allegorical level. In an unforgettable scene, Burgmann and the schizophrenic mathematician Theo recite full lines from The Divine Comedy in conversational banter as Burgmann solicits Theo’s aid, and their references draw attention to the similarity of their own situation to the deep spiritual battle which Dante experiences on his journey through Hell. In addition, the numerical significance of The Divine Comedy ties in well with the numerology which is so central to Caress’ story, and reveals the bridge between literature and mathematics, art and science, which is a central theme of her work. Finally, Caress begins each chapter with two quotations, often from great works of literature, which are so applicable to the ensuing content that the effect is stinging.
Beyond her mastery of style, Caress boldly addresses some fundamental questions and controversial issues from which many of her contemporaries have shied away, and she does so with an incredible degree of passion, art, and finesse. She delves into the relationship between paganism and Christianity, showing how Christianity is actually a fulfillment of the beliefs and spiritual goals of ancient paganism. She demonstrates that neopaganism, and literally any paganism after Christ’s coming, is a reaction to Christianity and a deliberate rejection of it. Ironically, by rejecting Christianity and returning to ancient pagan practices, the neopagans undermine the essence of ancient pagan beliefs, which sought to discover the true relationship between God and the world. Therefore, Christianity and neopaganism cannot coexist.
Another central issue which Caress analyzes through her novel is the ethical question of how far science can go. Can man make an intelligent machine, and if so, would it be, as many modern technicians believe, an improvement, superior to man? Caress shows how this cannot be, how any creation made by man will always be inferior to God’s creation, including man himself. Man should accept his place as a creature of God, rather than trying to usurp God’s power. Caress uses the phrase, “the flesh becomes word,” when describing the act of man making an intelligent machine, showing how it is a pride-inspired perversion of the Incarnation, in which God became man out of love. The plot of Caress’ novel is unique and futuristic, making the story a fascinating read, yet at the same time it is remarkably applicable to issues and interests of the present day.
This novel is a literary and intellectual masterpiece which challenges the reader to think seriously about each of the fundamental issues addressed. It changed my own perspective on life permanently, helping me to be more astute in viewing the world, as issues and images from the novel return to my mind continually. Caress’ story is one of those rare treasures which leave an irrevocable impact on the reader, proving that it is truly a great work of literature. I do not merely suggest this book to readers. A Parliament of Monsters must be read.
Deirdre Littleton is a graduate of Ave Maria University,
where she majored in Literature.