POVERTY, chastity and obedience can really put the modern masses off what many think is the one true way of being a good, God-fearing Christian – unless you are one of the bright young things in Alex Preston’s racy, trendy second novel, The Revelations.
The author’s second novel is set not too far from the City of London, where Preston, a former City-trader turned writer, made waves with his credit-crunch fiction, This Bleeding City , which won the Edinburgh Book Festival Reader’s First Book Award in 2010. But where his first attempt at published fiction was rooted in the amoral heart of “hedgies” (the “spivs and speculators” of the recent market crashes), The Revelations is built on the uncomfortable crux of where God meets Mammon. And where, despite all reports to the contrary, the two seem to get on just fine. For a while, at least.
The Revelations focuses on a group of four twentysomethings, all friends from their university days, who are about to lead what is called the Course for the first time. The Course is based on evangelical movements of the early Noughties, such as the Alpha Course, which updated a conservative Christian message for a modern, affluent society, but which were later tarnished with accusations from some quarters that they were cultlike.
Affluence is the key to both the Course and its members, and Preston links the growth of the movement to the ambitions of its leader, the charismatic solicitor-turned- preacher David Nightingale, which are backed by a shadowy, arriviste Earl and a number of millionaire converts who have made their money on the City markets. This is religion and business.
The foursome at the heart of the novel all have different approaches to their faith and difficulties in the years since the initial fervour of their conversion passed, which makes thoughtful meat.
Marcus, who is married to Abby, is a successful corporate lawyer who finds he is wrestling with his belief in God and the expectations of the priest as he struggles to control his smoking, drinking, and other wayward desires. Preaching tends to make him feel “fraudulent and spivvy”, despite his wife’s growing ardour and enthusiasm for the Course’s ambitions.
Lee is the thin, beautiful, nervy character, whose “slumps” become an increasing worry for her friends and also to the Church’s backers. She studies early female Christian mystics – an unusual subject handled lightly but affectingly by Preston. But this is at odds with her even more unusual hobby of seducing men then documenting the trysts as if they were butterflies on a pin.
Mouse, a pudgy, Glaswegian who gets rowdy with drink, loves the God he worships but loves Lee more. And while his affection is unrequited, and he preaches the joys of abstinence, he avails himself of the services at massage parlours.
So far, so complex. What Preston puts his finger on is that there are many in the church who do not always practise what they preach. What Preston does is bring this to a recent movement, set in contemporary Britain. He highlights some of the tricks you can use if you are starting a new religion, describing how the Course employs spot lighting to intensify the drama of a sermon, or the use of rock music to attract its younger converts.
Fleshing out Abby, the fourth character, is where some of Preston’s writing seems more awkward than nuanced. She is meant to be attractive, but heavy set. A talented singer, but the one of the group of friends who is most unquestioningly religious and thus least sympathetic. Her relationship to Marcus is fraught with this tension, too. Yet while Marcus’s ambivalence to his religion shares the same locus as his uncertainty about his love for Abby, Preston’s portrayal continually renders her in off-puttingly disgusted terms – she is “heavy”, “lumbering” and “wide”. Why would the wife of a City lawyer wear mismatching underwear held together by safety pins?
Yet despite a few quirks, Preston’s writing is fresh and original, adding depth to the characters, while the pages are peppered with lyrical descriptions and startling images – of sunlight over the misty Thames, or rooks hung from trees in the countryside to scare away predators. Preston is not quite the writer his publicists link him to, neither as eloquent as F Scott Fitzgerald nor as edgy as Bret Easton Ellis. But he has shown that he certainly can tackle an issue in a way that will resonate with readers.
• The Revelations
By Alex Preston
Faber, 366pp, £12.99