Having enjoyed my Mary Hocking reading this month so much I decided to squeeze just one more in – having originally planned to read only three. Look, Stranger arrived from ebay last week – a nice ex-library copy with an attractive dust jacket – it may have been the cover that convinced me to read it right away.
Look, Stranger is a novel about change, changes in people, lives, and landscape and the challenges these changes bring to the people of a fictional island community. The arrival of a stranger shines a light on this odd little community and its problems. Widowed Matthew Vereker arrives on Helmsley Island from the American mid-west on a year’s exchange as vicar of All Hallows. Vereker brings his own brand of religion with him as well as his own baggage, and both he and the community must start to get to know one another. There are naturally pre-conceptions on both sides – Vereker arrives at the vicarage to hear himself being discussed by two parishioners who are getting the house ready for his arrival, and Vereker himself thinks he knows what kind of people he will be living among.
“In Virginia Close, the trial was over and the case had been lost. They were polite, they poured sherry and gave donations, one or two offered him a day ‘s sailing; but as far as they were concerned, the Church had outlived its purpose. They were sophisticated people, moderate and sceptical, and they had outgrown religion. If there had ever been a voice inside them that cried out for help, they had rationalised it away. When he left, they would turn on the television and settle down to watch a play about the struggle of the working classes, written by a member of the middle-class. Class. Class. Always class. There weren’t any people in England, only members of classes dying behind their stockades. England had no breadth; he felt it crowding in on him, over-peopled and cramped, bedevilled with intricate, baffling complexities which can only ravel up existence when people are closely confined. Yet there were depths. Suddenly, without warning, they were there at your feet, black, bottomless, terrifying; you skimmed along on the surface thinking you were managing pretty well, then suddenly the ground had shifted and you had stepped into a well.”
Once a haven for smugglers, now Helmsley Island is crowded with smart modern bungalows, dilapidated old cottages and holiday day trippers and space is at a premium. Vereker finds the community rather more complicated than he had expected; conventional Christians vie with the Ancient People – who dance naked at night, while political agitators, archaeologists, and homeless squatters squabble over land. Living close by at Carrick Farm are cousins and former lovers Zoe and Tudor Lindsay, Tudor a volatile tortured soul, and Zoe who sees the ghosts of nuns in the priory ruins.
Vereker and his daughter Nancy living in the large vicarage, consent to house one of the squatter families in their basement; Mrs Anguilos and her son Milo, one of the Ancient People – who looking for gods finds one in himself. Following her recent sexual awakening aboard the ship that brought her to England Nancy finds herself infatuated with rather unsuitable Tudor, while Zoe gradually becomes closer to Vereker as she works alongside him at the vicarage each day. Over the long scorching summer of drought – tempers flare over future use of the priory site, fires break out on scorched ground and a window and altar at All Hallows are damaged in the continuing conflict between Christianity and the Ancient People. As summer draws out Vereker sets the cat among the pigeons from the pulpit, following a surprising battle at the summer fair.
‘I can’t pretend that I am in sympathy with the charismatics, but neither can I bring myself to dismiss them. We have pared down our faith until there is nothing in it which could be objectionable to anyone or of much interest, either. Can we be surprised that people cry out for something more?’
As winter comes to Helmsley Island Vereker, Zoe and Nancy all face changes – and as the time for him to go back to America draws closer Vereker realises that his life will never be the same.
Look, Stranger is a very good novel I enjoyed it enormously although it may not ever be a favourite Hocking, I enjoyed the mix of eccentric characters and peculiarly English disputes. This has the feeling of a fairly ambitious novel, melding questions of faith and religion with that of people’s sense of themselves and where they belong. For me there were one or two moments of mild confusion – but overall I enjoyed Look, Stranger and you can be sure I will continue to read Mary Hocking novels.