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Friday 25 January 2013

Book Review: 'Clovenhoof' by Heide Goody and Iain Grant

In the early 21st Century, petty office politics, management bullshit, and bureaucracy. Despite the way many people might feel about these things, Satan does not thrive on them. He loses his position as Lord of Hell, and is retired to live in Sutton Coldfield, North Birmingham.

This is the Premise of Clovenhoof, the debut novel of Heide Goody and Iain Grant, co-founders of Birmingham's Pigeon Park Press. Although it takes the novel a few chapters to warm up to the thrust of the main plot, the characters are immediately likeable. Satan's new friends and neighbours, Nerys and Ben, lean very slightly towards stereotype but in comic writing this sort of exaggerated characterisation works well, especially when there is so much more going on with them beyond our first impressions. Satan himself is endearingly befuddled by his new life, and he leans more towards chaos and mischief than downright malevolence. Even before the plot reaches full swing, the characters start to develop in believable, interesting ways as they face the challenges of modern life in their own unique manners.

It is this character development which binds the novel together through its episodic opening chapters. The first part of the book reads like a sitcom, but it is a very good sitcom with characters that you genuinely care about and situations which lend themselves to the book's sense of humour, which is anarchic and irreverent, but still warm and even comforting.

The novel is punctuated by scenes from the celestial boardroom, where a committee of angels and saints discuss the administrative issues facing Heaven and Hell. The portrayals of Saints Peter, Paul, Francis of Assisi, and Joan of Arc are perfect for the tone of the book. God, however, is notably absent from these meetings, which are chaired by the Archangel Michael.

The characterisation of Michael embodies some of the contradictions facing Christianity in the modern age; on one hand, he is suavely dressed, smooth spoken and virtuous, but on the other, he is inflexible, old fashioned and priggish. His attitude to towards female preachers, for example, is less than supportive. These sorts of contrasts are explored in other parts of the book, and it is tempting to see them, combined with God's non-attendance of the board meetings, as an allegory of the way religion can be hijacked to suit various opinions and political agendas.  This is not to say the book is anti-Christian: Joan of Arc and a female vicar called Evelyn come out of the story very well. If this all sounds a bit heavy for a light comedy, it doesn't feel it in practice.

Neither does the novel draw exclusively from Christianity for its source material. The Qur'an and various apocryphal texts also play a part in filling out the Heavenly Host and the demonology of Hell. In all, Clovenhoof is a very well researched novel with likeable characters and a strong undercurrent of warm comedy (one of the more difficult genres to do well). I was lucky enough to download it for free, but even if that offer has expired, it would make a great addition to anybody's digital library.

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