by Susan Howatch
Alfred A. Knopf, 502pp.
You won't find a novelist, Christian or otherwise, with a better grasp of the human psyche than Susan Howatch. The breadth and depth of her psychological sophistication is inspiring to me. As a clinician, I spend hour after hour trying to capture the experience of the person I sit across from in precise and soul-bending language. The clarity of Howatch's psychological insights is what I aim for. In "The High Flyer," Ms. Carter Graham, the heroine, takes the reader on a wild ride through good and evil, to arrive in the end at spiritual conversion and psychological health.
The precision of Howatch's insight is captured in Carter's discovery that her failed father is similar to her estranged husband. Reconciling with her father, Carter is struck by their similiarity--not physical but psychological. "He stopped. With an enormous effort I drew breath to respond, but when I finally looked straight into his (her father's) bloodshot blue eyes words failed me because all I saw was Kim [her husband], looking back." From a professional standpoint, this insight captures the clinical fact that people often seek mates that replicate their parental relationships. And anyone married a decade or more knows it.
"The High Flyer" is the latest entry in the Starbridge Series, which began as six novels focusing on clerics in the Church of England. While "The Wonder Worker" and "The High Flyer," her seventh and eighth novels, are not officially in the series, according to Howatch, the stories use some of the characters avid fans already know-and-love-or-hate. Three factors make the series both spiritually and psychologically intriguing: 1) the diverse theological positions that are not only debated but change lives, 2) the diverse psychological profiles of the characters, and 3) the depiction of confession, spiritual direction, and repentance in the development of the characters over the years as well as the occasional miracle of God.
I would be remiss if I did not mention another aspect that draws readers into the series: sex. Howatch shows clergymen to be not asexual, but human, and at times, miserably fallen humans with regard to their inability to tame their more primal drives. But these are not soap operas or even purely family dramas. Each book takes an in-depth look into a particular theological position, from evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, liberal theology, across the spectrum. The characters outline, in lengthy debates, the tenets of doctrine better than a Powerpoint lecture at Princeton Seminary. In "High Flyer," Carter espouses modern rationalism with a cynical regard for anything as weak-minded as religion or faith.
If there is any criticism of the series, including "High Flyer," it is that these intellectual dialogue sequences are so long that at times the reader yearns for more action. But at such slow moments, Howatch often throws in a sexual encounter that brings the story back to Earth.
Every book also focuses on a particular personality style; from narcissistic, dependent, borderline, to anti-social (as in "High Flyer") styles. For the lay reader the complexity of these personalities is just as fascinating as it is for the therapist who can easily fit the main characters into a diagnostic manual for emotional disorders.
This bleak outlook engulfs her life before she meets God through the person of Eric Tucker, a Christian writer-turned-temporary worker who fills a short-lived clerical position in her office. Meanwhile, through a series of baffling and disturbing discoveries about her new, handsome, intelligent, lawyer husband, Kim Betz, she slowly discovers hat he is not all he was cracked up to be.
The modern, single, dating woman can relate to this experience. Mr. Right often ends up being quite wrong after a few months--but Carter has married the guy who is Mr. Wrong. The dark side of Kim Betz descends to group orgies, Nazism, torture, and the occult. Howatch's versimilitude is potent, and at times frightening. The author captures evil so completely in her description, it leaps off the page into the reader's psyche. The Betz apartment is frequently found in odd disarray, but not in a manner that a thief would leave it. A bottle of milk is overturned on the floor, a picture has fallen off the wall. Later, Carter and Kim are discussing the possibility of having children when unexpectedly, "He swung to face me. I heard him say sharply: 'What children?' and suddenly I knew not only that he had arranged the disorder in the flat but that he was conning me in ways I had not even begun to imagine." The bone-chilling fear that one's most intimate partner is a dangerous stranger grips the reader at his core. These chapters are not for the reader with a weak stomach.
Howatch has been criticized in the past for being too mystical with her theology and too loose with her sexuality on the page.The standard evangelical may be offended by the rawness of the humanity she presents. What more than redeems the text is her ability to capture Carter's struggle against God, and eventually with God, to hang on to her life amidst the disquieting chaos that her previously well-ordered life becomes. Once again the reader is captivated by Carter's struggle for control and by her realization that it is only in letting go of her life, that she finds it with God's help. She changes from using sex as a power tool to seeing self-control as a virtue. Carter is transformed from an angry feminist into a strong pro-human woman by working through the demons of her past, through forgiving her negligent parents. She no longer has to be aggressive toward men to prove to herself that she has value. Her value comes from God within, and she comes to know it.
Carter is everywoman, broken but strong; integrated, now that she does not have to hide from herself; repentant and forgiven; and able to find a good man, now that she knows what a good man looks like, from the inside out. Carter can give up her masculine name and allow herself to be feminine because she knows she is strong on the inside rather than ardently portraying her aggressiveness to others to convince herself of her strength.