“This it what it was like. No matter who you were back then, and whoever you ended up as afterwards, this is exactly what it felt like.” A friend’s comment on Kathleen Jowitt’s novel Speak Its Name sums up a lot of what I felt about this book. The protagonist is a young woman at a fictional British university, who struggles to reconcile her sexuality with her faith, and the novel provides a moving exploration of integrity, religious conflict and the difficulties of working out who you are and what life might be about.
It’s also extremely funny, since that description might make it sound a little solemn. Jowitt captures brilliantly the atmosphere of student life, from housemate dynamics to resits, and the life of serious playing – as one of her characters puts it – which university can allow. A lot of the laughs come from the main character’s ironic awareness of what her life would look like to an outsider, and others come from a wincing recognition of how accurately the author satirizes the world of a British university.
It’s a very particular kind of student life examined in Speak Its Name: the world of campus Christianity. The protagonist is an earnest young woman (and all too aware of it) who tries to live up to her own standards of spiritual purity and evangelisation, helping run the committee of a Christian society whilst trying to deal with the part of herself which she can’t mention to any of her friends.
A prayer vigil shared with other Christians at the university brings her into contact with the confusing sprawl of other denominations and traditions; the motorcycling Quaker intent on political action, the nonchalant high Anglican chanting in Latin around the house, the spiritually creative bisexual woman whose attention brings the protagonist’s life to a crisis.
This is one of the thematic centres of Speak Its Name: the complexity and diversity of religious faith. There is no moment when the main character simply “finds” the right beliefs for herself, and everything clicks into place, no assurance that if she joins the right church nothing will bother her again. This is a coming-out story, and a coming-out-again story, and a living-out story, and a working out what that means story. The theoretical problem posed to two young women who aren’t sure whether they believe in sex before marriage, but also can’t get married in a way which either of their churches recognise – nor even define what they might do as sex in ways which make sense in one of their traditions – acts as a symbol for the book’s ongoing negotiations between life and religious meaning.
There are suggestions, though, of a spiritual and theological pattern working alongside these confusions. There are quiet references to the Book of Ruth dropped here and there: a mention of Biblical passages often read at weddings, a set of study notes on Ruth left behind in a bedroom, and a powerful echo during one of their conversations:
Not with me? Colette looked worried.
Oh yes, Lydia hastened to reassure her, But – look. Your God and my God are the same, but your people aren’t my people. Yours are lovely – if a bit weird, and deeply suspicious of me – but we don’t really understand each other.
This is not a proof-text that their relationship is going to last forever, nor is it even a full quotation of Ruth’s words:
And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.
But it does hint that there are lives which have been lived before them which made sense of this puzzle, and that in time this commitment may show the same love to the world – not to mention the implication it makes that the lives of two young queer women in a British university have something to say about the way we should read the Bible.
The novel is set during a specific period of the recent past, which a lot of people will remember; the disagreements about Christianity and Student Unions which raged during the late 1990s and early 2000s. This is another strong point of the novel: it’s not solely concerned with individual faith but also with the rickety and rancorous politics of religion in the public space.
It’ll ring absolutely true for a vast number of people who remember those days, and have their own stories. I wasn’t even a Christian at the time, and I’ve got stories from back then. But it also has something to offer the continuing discussions about the ways Christian faith is lived in universities. It’s an absolutely riveting novel, and one which I think will earn a lot of attention over the coming months.