“The nation holds it breath, awaiting the cataclysm. Nothing happens. The nation breathes out in anti-climax. They go back to what passes for normal. Around here they’re more normal still…it’s the riverside cacophony that insulates them”. So begins the Second World War in Articles of Faith, no more than “distant tremors” from “that vague entity” called Europe.
Set in Clydebank, Michael Cannon’s fifth novel excels as a representation of community, capturing the war’s lurking psychological presence in a story of religious fanaticism which lays bare the malleable nature of childhood when the support structure of family fails. Cannon’s novel follows the story of Gig and Campbell, a brother and sister who move to Clydebank along with their alcoholic and distinctly single father and begin the process of assimilating themselves into a close-knit community dominated by Catholic piety and self-reliant respectability. Their downstairs neighbours, the Neavies, exemplify the kind of community spirit which is both morally required of them by the local threadbare priest Father Delaney, and borne of a natural sympathy which strains between judgement and kindness. Most prominent among the supporting cast is the rigidly self-righteous Miss Herne, the dominant personality of the local school staff room and something of a religious zealot. She takes a particular interest in Gig’s religious education and begins a private tutoring programme which threatens to remake Gig in her own image of moral superiority. Father Bernacchi, another new arrival in the community as the ailing Delaney’s aide, at once fulfils the role of outsider and healer, capable of arousing suspicion due to his foreignness and of acting as the voice of reason in the face of Miss Herne’s fanaticism.
Cannon’s novel thrives on the interwoven nature of small community life, creating connections and conflicts and ascribing roles to many of his characters which are broadly symbolic. The role of the Catholic Church in community life is of particular interest. Fathers Delaney and Bernacchi contrast starkly. Although both are surrounded by the same respect their title commands, the same ritualistically scrubbed hospitality. The decrepit Delaney is described by Miss Herne as a “bumbling functionary”, a man “fumbling for platitudes in the pulpit” and whom Cannon ensures “is preceded by a bow wave of cosmetic tidying…he’s presented with an implausible scene of domesticity” at every turn. Where Delaney seems to live in this “implausible” space with a fading sense of moral authority, Paolo Bernacchi, “recently from that exotic region known as ‘abroad'”, is young, energetic and a more gifted speaker then Delaney, one would imagine, ever was. Speaking of the community, Delaney tells Bernacchi, “not unkindly”, that “‘They hate change. I hate change. In their mind you represent change.'” Cannon uses Miss Herne to bring into focus this idea of a community resistant to outside interference and change. When she places Bernacchi’s arrival and his Anglicised name change from ‘Paolo’ to ‘Paul’ in the context of the ongoing war in Europe, Cannon imbues his narration with a wonderful sardonic tone: “Miss Herne’s conscious of becoming bogged down in detail that’s distracting her from her purpose of guilt by association. ‘And perhaps Father Paolo Bernacchi thought it prudent to distance himself from his Italian origins.'”
Elsewhere in the novel, Cannon employs his wry narration to equal effect, in one instance memorably relating teachers’ “pantomime of sad consternation” as Campbell’s friend Danny is beaten by the Headmaster while the Dickensian imagery of teaching by rote continues: “The catechism, the chanting of the six times table, the rhythmic recitation of ‘Young Lockinvar’, the scrutiny of the red-mapped Empire, all give pause as the sound of the strokes echo up the stairwell.” Despite the brutal, the fanatic and the ritual aspects of community that Cannon describes, his Clydebank is fundamentally decent, perhaps best encapsulated by Campbell’s description of Danny’s mother as “this unknown species of mother”, a surrogate figure whose wordless acts of kindness define a community and elevate Cannon’s prose above the ordinary. Representing extremism and parental neglect without demonising, while portraying everyday gestures of neighbourly kindness without romanticising, Cannon’s novel is a rare breed of nuanced intelligence.