BELIEF

Stephanie Johnson, Author
Stephanie Johnson, Author . St. Martin's $26.95 (496p) ISBN 978-0-312-29110-5
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The darker side of belief permeates this American debut by New Zealander Johnson, who chronicles a life of spiritual pilgrimage driven by mental instability in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. William McQuiggan's physical abuse as a child has left him a bitter alcoholic unable to accept responsibility for his actions. He ekes out a poverty-stricken existence in rural New Zealand with his wife, Myra, the orphaned daughter of a rigid Australian minister. Martyr-like, Myra endures William's physical, sexual and emotional abuse until the reader becomes numbed by her continuous suffering. The narrative of New Zealand life is peppered with vivid but unfamiliar regional terminology (a glossary would have been helpful for American readers). After a vision that was possibly whiskey-induced, William deserts Myra and their newborn twins to begin a search for God that takes him to America and involves him in three different religious movements. Johnson documents many of the attractions of Mormonism, the Jehovah's Witness movement and Dr. Alexander Dowie's Zion City, Ill., utopian community, but ultimately paints them all as fallible and deceptive. By the time William's family joins him in America, he has become completely mentally unhinged, even as Myra has grown tougher and more resilient. Johnson's writing is strong, her characterizations convincing, and the novel incorporates some fine subthemes about racial discrimination and family dynamics. However, the conclusion—that faith is essentially a meaningless, empty exercise—may fail to resonate with an American audience. (May)

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