Sunday 21 February 2010

The Missionaries

This was the Reading Group’s book for February and is the second Robin Jenkin’s novel I have now read. The first was the Cone Gatherers and curiously that was also via the Reading Group. I enjoyed the Cone Gatherers immensely and was looking forward to reading The Missionaries. Unfortunately it was not a very good read. There is probably the makings of a good novel in the tale, but this is not it.

Set mainly in the imaginary small and now almost uninhabited island of Sollas, somewhere off the west coast of Scotland, the novel is about the reactions to an attempt by a small group of Christian sectarians to settle on the island. The island’s owner wants them off and secures a court order for their eviction. A Sheriff from the mainland, backed up by a motley crew of police officers sets off to carry out the evictions. Into this dispute steps the idealistic and highly moral Andrew Doig, who in a student pamphlet takes up the cause of the sectarians. In a double twist Andrew meets up with the daughter of the island’s owner - Madeleine Vontin - who is, surprise, surprise, both beautiful and intelligent. Andrew is of course well smitten with this vision, especially when she invites him to visit the island to see for himself what is going on there. It also turns out that the mainland Sheriff is Andrew’s uncle. Andrew’s father is a Church of Scotland minister and Andrew is torn between entering the ministry or the legal profession. Cue for lots of personal introspection and moralising.

Once on the island and having met up with the sectarians Andrew is appalled by their appearance - uncouth, unclean and uneducated. Not at all what God’s chosen ones should look like - at least not to a son of the manse. Andrew is apparently seriously torn between the charms of Madeleine and the pull of the sectarians. He is almost on the verge of a breakdown when he suddenly sees sense and wanders off to the comforts of Madeleine and her warm, genteel life.

Difficult to take the novel too seriously. It was published in 1957 and describes a period in Scottish history and society when matters of religion and propriety were of much greater import than they are now. It does read as a rather dated tale. Jenkins tries to add a bit of spice by giving some life to the lesser characters, but in such a short book - just over 200 pages - he is not able to do justice to these characters, and only succeeds in prolonging the outcome. Though there is some well crafted writing, this is not one of Jenkin’s more interesting novels.

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