True confessions. I didn’t always like Christian fiction. But several years ago I agreed to write a feature article for the then UK-Christian-trade-publishing magazine, and found my prejudices were proven wrong. Mostly.
When I wasn’t looking, Christian fiction grew up. Gone (again, mostly) were the formulaic last-minute conversions and marriages. Instead I found strong characters and insightful themes, with Christian truths appearing in a graceful manner.
Some Christian publishers promote their titles as “fiction with a U-certificate” (or Stateside, rated G). This resonates with the post from a lively discussion about Christian fiction (too American? too twee? too easy of endings?) on the Woman Alive Book Club Facebook group: “I generally tend towards Christian novels as I dislike reading sensual scenes and about the championing of worldly values. I get enough of the later every day just out and about town!” I agree, but wouldn’t want to have to choose between Christian and general fiction.
When reading twenty novels for the writing of the feature, my love of Lisa Samson’s novels was reaffirmed. She weaves themes, characters, time periods, and places together into stories out of the ordinary. Here’s my review of two of hers.
Resurrection in May follows a spoiled young woman to Rwanda where she helps out a Christian mission. She refuses to leave during the genocide and witnesses her whole village being slaughtered, only just managing to escape alive.
This is a thought-provoking and gripping novel. The characters were believable and authentic, and the sweet truths of the gospel emerge not only through the pain and heartache but through the healing that eventually comes. The ending is good and not trite, with some interesting twists.
Embrace Me is another unusual story. The publisher’s promotional copy says, “When a ‘lizard woman,’ a self-mutilating preacher, a tattooed monk, and a sleazy lobbyist find themselves in the same North Carolina town one winter, their lives are edging precariously close to disaster . . . and improbably close to grace.” Make you want to rush out and buy it? No, me neither. But I had an advance copy that didn’t name this lizard woman, and I’ve enjoyed Lisa Samson’s works in the past. So I dived in. And I read and pondered and mused and was moved. I didn’t want it to end.
She weaves the stories of several individuals throughout this novel, jumping back and forth in time in a way that doesn’t jar. She is a poster girl of the writing adage, “Show, don’t tell,” as she leads the reader into a gentle exploration of the lives and emotions of the characters. Nor does Lisa give cookie-cutter solutions or resolutions; her writing doesn’t come across as in-your-face-black-and-white, but as orthodox shades of grey. She explores issues of Protestant versus Catholic beliefs (in a gracious way), community, social justice, lies and falsehood and confession, forgiveness and freedom. All without the reader really realizing that she’s delving so deeply into these subjects.
The book opens from the point of view of Drew in 2002, a megachurch preacher who has holed himself away in a rundown motel in Ocean City, Maryland. He has run from the lies of his life, and is so numb that he can only feel when he burns himself with cigarettes. In this state, he turns to a Catholic priest, making his confession through letters (yes, unusual for a Protestant preacher, but as I said this is no ordinary novel). Then in the next chapter we jump forward to 2008 and the point of view of Valentine, a deeply scarred woman who appears as a lizard creature in a circus freak show. She is wounded on the outside and on the in; she holds her bitterness tightly, only showing her true self to a special few, including Lella, the sweet-spirited woman with no arms or legs.
How the author manages to move across the years as she tells the stories of Drew, Valentine and several others is gripping and profound. It’s a novel that made me think about what it means to extend and receive grace and forgiveness; how it would be to live in a Christian community; how we measure success versus how God does; and how we ultimately find joy.
I didn’t anticipate the ending, but that made the book it all the more intriguing and thought-provoking. Definitely one not to miss.
Resurrection in May, Thomas Nelson, 2010, 978-1595545442
Embrace Me, Thomas Nelson, 2008, 978-1595542106