The Undercover Revolution: A Review

Iain Murray, The Undercover Revolution (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009)

It has been noted by other reviewers that Murray utterly fails to substantiate his claim regarding “the influence of fiction upon society” (vii). He claims that fiction is the reason why “Christianity is a thing of the past for most people in Britain today” (3), and that “books were the main means by which it came about” (4).

I bought and read this book because Robert Louis Stevenson was reported to be treated prominently, and as I find Stevenson’s fiction to be delightful and profound, I wondered what dangers Murray found in it. Though he has an entire chapter devoted to Stevenson and a few reflections in a later chapter on him, in all of it Murray gives not a single example of Stevenson’s fiction producing the effects he claims.

Instead, he focuses on Stevenson’s personal life, and his rejection of the strict Scottish Calvinism of his parents, and indeed of Christianity itself. Having recently finished a full length biography of Stevenson, I can attest that this is all true, but really beside the point, if the point is that his fiction is what did the damage to Britain.

Further, I’m afraid Murray’s treatment of Stevenson is a bit unfair in places. In one place he quotes W.E. Henley’s criticism of RLS as “incessantly and passionately interested in Stevenson,” i.e. highly self-absorbed (66). However, a look at the context of their relationship reveals a disgruntled Henley, extremely bitter over a perceived slight on the part of Stevenson’s wife, and perhaps a long-standing jealousy. Is a quote from Henley following a major falling-out really a fair way to portray Stevenson? Hardly a reliable perspective.

As a way to prove a point, Murray points out that “the last three years of Stevenson’s life were deeply unhappy” (69). However, knowing the context again elicits compassion rather than victorious comparisons. Stevenson’s wife suffered from mental illness and her behavior was a source of deep trouble for RLS. Nevertheless, he stayed with her to the end, and did his best to accommodate her. Stevenson’s physical ailments also were a source of pain, and his poor diet and alcohol and tobacco consumption didn’t help either. I read the same biography that Murray quoted from here, and my reaction was the opposite.

His personal life aside, I actually think the opposite is true of Stevenson’s fiction. He explores the complexities of human nature, of relationships, and of our experiences of good and evil in ways unlike any other writer. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the most famous treatment, but The Master of BallantraeKidnappedThe Black Arrow, even the boyish Treasure Island and the much maligned (but a personal favorite) Prince Otto all push the reader to wrestle with a reality which is often more messy than our preferred idealized constructions. Stevenson makes you feel like few other writers to, and I think his fiction should be welcome to a thoughtful Christian, contrary to Murray’s (unsubstantiated) claims.

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Review: The Luminaries

 

 

The Luminaries: by Eleanor Catton

luminaries

literature as masterful story-telling

The first time I ever heard of the ‘Man Booker Prize’ was on NPR. Turns out the book that won it that year was garbage (in my humble opinion), but I read some more, and one of my favorite novels of all time turned out to be an MB winner. I don’t read very much fiction, but I do try to read each year’s winner if I get the chance.

I gulped when I pulled The Luminaries off the shelf, felt the 800+ pages, and wasn’t sure if I wanted to devote that much effort. I followed the ‘100-minus-your-age’ rule, read the first 72 pages, and then wanted more. I was getting hooked. By the time I finished the first (and largest, by far) section of the book, I had to finish.

The story is a mystery: how did Crosbie Wells, a hermit gold prospector, die? Where is Emory Staines, the richest young man in the town? What happened to Anna Wetherell, found unconscious in the street? There are more questions than this, but these are big ones. The first section of the book depicts 12 men from the town, with various connections to these questions, gathered in a room, telling their stories, trying to piece it all together.

I had the sense near the beginning that this was going to be epic in story-telling scope, and it was. The unreliability of differing human perspectives with different motives and different interpretations is explored throughout the whole book. There were no overarching moral themes that stood out — this was just a very well written mystery, with dozens of twists and turns, and the the truth from the past unfolded the deeper you go. The book cycles through the 12 different men, and a few key women, and works its way backward in time — in some sections — while working its way forward in others. The progressive unfolding of the big picture is an incredible ride.

I enjoyed The Luminaries as a really good story. I enjoyed the style, the characters, the suspense, and the revealing of the mystery. It was worth the effort, for me.