In This Vale of Tears featured novel for reading club

Caroline Chisholm Library’s Catholic Reading Club invited me to attend their March 31 meeting as the author of the month’s featured novel, In This Vale of Tears. I was delighted that my book had been chosen for discussion and equally delighted to attend the meeting. I was a little nervous, though, because I had not experienced this sort of literary ‘examination’ before. It would be embarrassing if nobody much liked my book!

I am aware that the themes of my novel and its Catholic setting are not to everyone’s liking.* But one may think I would be safe with the people in a Catholic Reading Club. Regretfully, it does not work that way. The paradox is that the members of a Catholic Reading Club are likely to be more discerning about a story of women in a female religious order than the general reader.

In addition to an engaging story, the Catholic reader would want the belief framework and the procedural aspects of a religious order correct and consistent. Blunders about belief, routine and ritual could risk sabotaging an interesting story. As an example, take the Father Brown series that appeared on the ABC a year or so ago. The series was based on G.K. Chesterton’s popular Father Brown detective stories. Any practising Catholic would see that the church of television’s Father Brown was not a Catholic church. It probably did not matter for most viewers, but for a practising Catholic, it appeared amateurish.

As it turned out (I am bold to say), the circle of examiners liked the novel on the whole. They had many comments and questions about the story and its characters, including where I had my inspiration and how the story originated. It was an instructive (and enjoyable) experience to hear the different reactions and interpretations from individual readers.

A novelist reads and rereads, and rereads his work again, checking for gaps in the story and clumsy or unclear writing. He reaches a point where he has to give up and send the work into the public arena, hoping that the reader will get the point of it all and enter into the lives of the character. So it was gratifying to hear that the point was got and the characters for the most part liked. There were a couple of criticisms, one more serious than the other, and in these I was more interested than in praise. Improving one’s writing is a never-ending process.

One reader thought a change of action and scenery in two parts of the story was too abrupt. The first case was where Aine O’Riordan left the convent to go straight into the arms of Charles Winterbine. The explanation for the apparent abruptness is that a chapter in the first book of the Winterbine trilogy – The Castle of Heavenly Bliss – is about Aine’s meeting Charles and the development of their relationship. If one reads the first book first, the change might not seem so abrupt. A word on the books of the Winterbine trilogy may provide further explanation.

When I began the first book, I did not have the plan of writing a second book, let alone a third book. When I finished The Castle of Heavenly Bliss, I realised there was a story in the background to Aine O’Riordan’s meeting Charles Winterbine. Why did she arrive in Binawarra in such a disturbed state? The answer to that question is a story that takes place before The Castle of Heavenly Bliss which plays out for the most part in 1975. That is how the second book in the Winterbine Trilogy, In This Vale of Tears, originated and why the second book is chronologically before the first book. A third book flows from the demand to know how Virginia/Sister Agnes fares during the upheaval of the 1960s and the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.

The Castle of Heavenly Bliss and In This Vale of Tears are self-contained and, in a way, it does not matter which novel is read first. One member of the reading club insists that the second book should be read first. I am presently in the last stages of revising the first book for a 2017 paperback edition** (as I have recently done for the second book) and still think it’s more fruitful to read the first book first.

The second case of abruptness in the action holds perhaps more weight. (Severe spoiler warning!) When Virginia Pearson as Sister Agnes eventually succumbs to philosophy lecturer and former fiance Philip Stevenson after a long struggle, there is a switch of scenery from the university (and thus the convent) to Sorrento Beach sometime later. My explanation is that the third book of the trilogy will begin with that period between Virginia’s breakdown and her stay at Sorrento. That period lays the groundwork for much of the story in the third book. Whether these explanations are satisfactory or not is for the reader to decide.

A second reader raised a more serious issue. Was one of the main characters (Margaret McGuigan/Sister Catherine) merely a vehicle for my (political) ideas? My immediate response was ‘I hope not.’ For that would mean I have failed in creating a rounded character. I can, however, see the point of the question.

I deliberately kept Margaret/Sister Catherine’s full motivations hidden because (mild spoiler warning) I wanted to convey the determination, cunning and furtiveness with which she was pursuing an agenda that clearly conflicted with her life as a religious sister. The plan is to reveal her political agenda and the way it relates to social and political trends in the third book. Again, I have to leave it to the reader to judge on this matter.

It was a very enjoyable and instructive evening with the Catholic Reading Club at Caroline Chisholm’s Library (Lonsdale Street in the city). I thank the members for their hospitality and interest in my writing.

If one is interested in joining the Caroline Chisholm Library’s Catholic Reading Club, as I intend to do, one can contact Hugh Jackson on 0437 698 336 or email

See reviews here and reader comments here.

*I have had many favourable comments from readers about The Castle of Heavenly Bliss and In This Vale of Tears. It pleases me that many readers recognise that the two novels are not proselytising for the Catholic faith or Church. They are stories about sometimes flawed people acting in a particular set of circumstances. One does not have to be Catholic to follow and enjoy the stories.

**The release of the new 2017 paperback edition of The Castle of Heavenly Bliss is planned for June 2017.