If there is some part of you that cringes ever so slightly at the phrase “Catholic novelist”, fear not. All shall be well, in the words of the mystic Julian of Norwich. The novels recommended here are written by Catholics, but they are, in and of themselves, excellent novels.

One of the marks that distinguishes great novelists, Catholic or not, is that they work hard at mastering the techniques of their particular art. This is something both Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Sayers talk about: any artist must learn to master the techniques and “laws” of their own form.

In fact, in her essay Why Work? Dorothy Sayers has some bracing words for the Church and her artists:

The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisurely hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables … No piety in the work will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is living a lie … work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work. (Letters to a Diminished Church)

The novels recommended here are inherently good works of fiction, irrespective of the Catholicity of the authors who penned them. It is precisely the fact that they are good works of fiction that lets whatever spiritual themes there are shine through with a more piercing intensity.

The Diary of a Country Priest

by Georges Bernanos

    The Diary of a Country Priest is a beautiful novel. Bernanos, interestingly, is a descendent of St Joan of Arc on her brother’s side. As such, his writing is pulsing with spiritual beauty. This particular novel tracks the life and thought of an inexperienced, sickly priest who moves to the rural French community of Ambricourt. His initial optimism wanes as he struggles against the apathy and boredom that characterizes much of rural parish life. He becomes something of an outcast for his ascetical practices and unsocial demeanour. The stories and conversations that occur in this novel are both intense and, strangely, spiritually edifying.

    The Goldfinch

    by Donna Tartt

      Donna Tartt first exploded onto the literary scene with her book The Secret History (one that you should also read). The Goldfinch is her third novel. It tells the story of a young boy named Theodore Decker whose mother, whilst visiting an art gallery, is killed in a bomb explosion. His mother’s favourite painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, survives the wreckage and so Theo steals it, keeping it for himself as a reminder of her. This novel really is a sprawling, meditative story, so producing a concise summary is difficult. As the story unfolds, though, Theo goes to live with his father, a deeply suspicious man, and befriends a wild and eccentric young Ukrainian boy, Boris. It follows their illegal exploits, love interests, and journey into adulthood. The conclusion is deeply satisfying.

      The Power and the Glory

      by Graham Greene

      Graham Greene is in some ways like Ernest Hemingway: concisely written stories that don’t spend too long labouring a point or description. That said, Greene often has some powerful themes running through his novels. The Power and the Glory concentrates on the life of a priest in Mexico during a time in which Catholicism was outlawed. The priest is trying to escape the clutches of a police Lieutenant tasked with hunting him. This priest, though, is famously a ‘whisky priest’, one whose habits are often self-destructive. Greene isn’t a fan of sentimentality: it has been said that he prefers to find God in the blood and the dirt. As a result, beautiful theological ideas are communicated simply and with great power.

      The Violent Bear It Away

      by Flannery O’Connor

        Flannery O’Connor is a famous writer from the American South. She is rightly one of the highly acclaimed fiction writers of the twentieth century. Her stories frequently explore themes of grace and sin, but are fascinating stories, always unpredictable and sometimes even shocking in the ways she writes about human evil. Although she is famous for her short stories, she also wrote two novels. The Violent Bear It Away is her second novel, and it follows the story of a young boy who was taken as a child and raised to be a prophet by an eccentric man who believed God was talking through him. When he dies, the young boy burns his home to the ground and sets off, lost and tortured by the old man’s post-mortem voice in his head. Things get dramatic when he is adopted and people try to domesticate him. It is a harsh and brutal tale, but fascinating also.

        The Anubis Gates

        by Tim Powers

          This is probably a bit “out there” for some people, but now we stray into the genre of fantasy and speculative fiction. Tim Powers is something of a revered author in the fantasy genre. His style is unique in that he combines history with fantasy. He researches historical events meticulously, looks for gaps in the story and then produces a compelling supernatural reason for that event, and thus a thrilling and fantastical story ensues. As a literary nerd, famous poets will often feature in his novels, like Keats, Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This novel is about a cabal of magicians attempting to travel back in time in order to bring forward in time the powerful gods of Egypt so they can destroy the British Empire. An academic, Brendan Doyle, is tasked with stopping them. Are there powerful spiritual themes in this novel? Not really, but it’s a spectacular tale nonetheless.

          What novel/s have you read by a Catholic author that you would recommend to others? We’d love to hear from you! Email us at communications@cam.org.au with the title, a brief synopsis and why you think it’s a must-read.