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All I wanted to do was re-examine Evie’s book. A palimpsest. Was that the solution to the secret of her book?

Rachel Mann’s first novel, The Gospel of Eve, is a remarkable book.  Dramatic, gripping and intellectually florid, it presents a story of corruption and obsession amongst ordinands at a Church of England seminary.  In doing so, it wrestles with some of the issues facing the Church, and which have reappeared in Mann’s earlier work, painting with gusto the allure and the danger of the past, of the body, and of memory.

The story centres on the death of a young ordinand, Evie, whose body is shown us, hanging from a rood beam, at the beginning of the book.  Thus this is not a detective novel, but something more like a why-dunnit, a story which begins much earlier than its first scene, but which keeps reminding us that we know where it is headed.  The narrator is Evie’s lover, a young woman training at the same college, who is drawn into an inner circle of privileged and erudite ordinands who cluster around a puckish and enigmatic tutor.

SPOILER BREAK – BELOW THIS I’M GOING TO DISCUSS A FEW MORE DETAILS OF THE NOVEL.  I don’t think you can “spoil” a book which starts by telling you who dies, but still…

If some of this sounds familiar, that is inevitable and (I’m fairly certain) intentional.  One of the organising symbols of the novel is the palimpsest, a manuscript which has been erased or overwritten, but on which the earlier layer can occasionally be seen showing through the later text.  The circulation of such a manuscript is one of the major threads of the plot, but it is also a means to reading The Gospel of Eve itself.

Mann’s novel is a palimpsest of Donna Tartt’s famous campus novel, The Secret History.  They both involve a nervous, lower-middle-class protagonist arriving at an elite institution, and finding within in an even more elite circle of students whose manipulative professor encourages them on a dangerous set of explorations into spiritual practices which destroy them.  Both novels are narrated by the older figure of that protagonist, with a heavy commentary on the events unfolding. 

There are even material objects recognisable between the books, which carry a similar emotional charge, such as a set of gold cufflinks and a pair of spectacles. Anyone very (or obsessively) familiar with The Secret History will recognise scenes, locations and even phrases which have been translated across the Atlantic into Littlemore seminary. Not to mention the fact that the name of the god invoked by Tartt’s students, Dionysios, is the name taken by one of Mann’s characters when he enters an Orthodox monastic order.

To point this out is not to criticise Mann’s novel, though.  It is a novel about the idea of the palimpsest, amongst other things: it offers the reader the opportunity to engage in the same kind of double textual vision.  Aptly for a work in which events are continually being recalled and glossed, the story itself feels twice-told before it even starts.  The invocation of Tartt’s famous first novel behind the text of Gospel of Eve throws the emphasis onto reinterpretation and scrutiny, rather than guessing what’s going to happen next.

This palimpsest effect goes on within the protagonist’s own narration: they tell the story of their own youth, the disasters which made them who they are now, thus making us aware that they are inevitably rereading those events into a shape which explains the present.  We know there must be a “simple” set of facts behind this narrative, but we can never see it except by scrutinising the narrative we are being told.  As if to double-underline the point, the narrator spends some of her time in her second term realizing she was wrong about the meaning of events in her first term – she subjects her own experience to a reinterpretation. 

Which brings attention back to the manuscript which offered this metaphor: a medieval penitential manual which is apparently written over the text of a radical feminist Christian document from a much earlier century.  A fairly clear symbol of the mission projected by the radical and liberal theologies of the nineteenth and twentieth century: a desire to see past the violent, superstitious accretions of the Middle Ages to the pure, radical, message of early Christianity. 

The novel indulges this idea, but also undermines it.  By the time the story ends this manuscript, which will apparently revolutionise Christianity, has disappeared, and only the idea of it is left to the narrator, as her spiritual touchstone.  The Gospel of Eve repeatedly denies us access to the imagined “original text” which would solve all problems and set us free, insistently bringing us back via its narrative technique to the work of interpretation, scrutiny and discernment. 

That interpretation reveals more than one text under the surface, incidentally. It is not only The Secret History to be discerned under The Gospel of Eve.  The image of a young woman’s body hanging in a college chapel originates in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, and has already provoked one “palimpsest” novel: as Susan Rowland has pointed in From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell, P.D. James was so struck by it that she arranged An Unsuitable Job for a Woman around a similar symbol. 

Both Sayers’ and James’ novels seem cited here by Mann, with their exploration of women’s vocations and men’s obstruction of them, as well as their sympathy for those excluded from elite institutions and those damaged by them.  There’s a bit of Brideshead Revisited at times, and a fairly substantial substratum of The Name of the Rose, itself a book about lost books, lethal manuscripts and the toxic passions within a religious community. 

Of course, there are also important differences between The Secret History and The Gospel of Eve, which the outlines of Gaudy Night help make clearer.  Few people worship Dionysius in Britain today, whilst many people worship Jesus Christ.  Exclusion and abuse are real issues facing Christian communities in Britain.  The Gospel of Eve has yet another narrative below the surface, which it only touches on obliquely.  This is, in some sense, a trauma novel about the abuse committed and covered up within the Church of England over the last decades. 

The penitential disciplines which the characters embrace are an overt and Gothic image of submerged violence which actually went on – at one point a character mentions that he learned about discipline at a Christian summer camp.  Just as its narrator retells her sister’s death in fragmented images, and refuses to tell certain parts of her own story, The Gospel of Eve uses the narrative logic of trauma to gesture at systematic violence and abuse within British Christianity. 

It is an unsettling novel, combining the erudite thriller style with its palimpsestuous technique to draw the reader into an obsessive textual game, and to gesture inside that game to the obsessions and suppressions within contemporary Christianity.