The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman
Book One of the Merrily Watkins series
First published by Pan McMillan, 1998.
2011 edition published by Atlantic Books/Corvus April 2011
The Merrily Watkins series is one of those ‘genre-by-the-back-door’ series: it’s about the supernatural, but so subtle that readers normally put off by such things can read them as ‘a dark crime novel’ without too much unease.
Merrily Watkins is a single mother who, after the death of her husband, becomes ordained as a Vicar (or as they prefer these days, ‘a Priest-in-Charge’) . After working in the drug dens and crime zones of Liverpool, she is given the picturesque country parish of Ledwardine and a big rambling vicarage to take care of.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, her start in the village is not entirely promising. When visiting a local event incognito, meant to encourage the fertilisation of the apple trees in the winter, Merrily sees a local man die, though whether deliberate or suicide is unclear.
After that, things become decidedly creepier. The main apple tree in the village seems to be there for more than just producing apples and it appears to bear a grudge. The proposal of a play written by celebrated gay playwright Richard Coffey on a 17th century member of the church accused of witchcraft seems to bring nothing but trouble. A party by teenager Colette Cassidy leads to her going missing, possibly in the orchard where the apple tree resides.
As Merrily struggles to find her feet in the parish (and the conservative parishioners adjust to a woman priest) there is scandal, political shenanigans and a definite sense of unease. For there seems to be something going on in the vicarage and the Apple Tree Man seems to be on the rise….
In a way, this book has a timeless quality that puts the village of Ledwardine anywhere in rural England in the last 30 years or so. The characters are not really anything new: lecherous squire, outsiders to the village, bullying teenagers, a dotty old lady with local knowledge, simple local folk…. anyone who has listened to The Archers (BBC radio soap opera, longest running of its type in the world), or seen television programmes such as The Vicar of Dibley (a UK comedy series) or even Midsomer Murders (a UK crime series set in a quaint English village) and films such as The Wicker Man or Simon Pegg’s Hot Fuzz (2007) knows that one of the basic ideas is that beneath that seemingly-calm veneer, that place of tranquillity, there’s enough odd people, social climbing, bedhopping and back-stabbing to make Beverly Hills 90120 look positively serene.
Here we have the added twists of a pretty-switched-on, ex-punk priest with a nicotine habit, who also happens to be a single mother and a member of the clergy, and there’s just enough of a touch of the supernatural to make Ruth Rendell or Susan Hill readers happy.
We examine rural upheaval, and the importance of non-Christian traditions in a place that has such a close connection to the countryside. Beneath the seemingly sunny veneer there is clearly more going on in this sleepy village than you can see.
As the nights draw in and the shadows grow longer, this is a great atmospheric page turner. The characters are so well-drawn that you quickly feel to be part of the village itself, and as events become decidedly creepier their consequences become all the more important. One of the strengths here is Merrily’s down-to-earth nature. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly I warmed to Merrily here, and in particular her relationship with her teenage daughter Jane, who keeps Merrily grounded in sensibility is extremely well done, even when she seems to be involved in the unusual events at Ledwardine. Such solidly written characterisation helps set the scene for when things become odd, you trust the characters you’ve invested in to keep it real (or at least as real as you can in a supernatural novel.)
If I had any negatives, it is perhaps a little long in places. But this is perhaps to be expected with the introduction of new main characters and a large supporting cast. By the end there is a palpable tension that kept the pages turning. It’s all about the apples….
There are twelve other Merrily novels after this one. By the conclusion of this one, I can see her being one of the fixtures here in the Hobbit library annexe, whilst I sit with a warming drink (perhaps mulled cider!) near to the fire, but also glancing into those shadows in the corner – just in case…
Mark Yon, September 2011