cover image The Wonder Worker

The Wonder Worker

Susan Howatch. Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95 (544pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40102-2

After 17 novels, including the acclaimed series about the Church of England (Absolute Truths, 1995, etc.), Howatch continues to write impressive fiction imbued with moral questions. Here she darkens her palette and addresses the dangerous side of ecclesiastical power. Four people tell their respective versions of a compelling story that brings forcefully home the theme that ""the wonder worker is the shadow side of the Christian healer,"" a person who works miracles to serve only himself. Set in a London healing center (and reprising some characters from the Starbridge series), the narrative examines the self-delusions to which priests are susceptible as they deal with their own humanity. Nicholas Darrow, 45, first met in Mystical Paths, is a gifted healer whose pre-conversion past is filled with hobgoblins and parlor tricks. He is sexually alluring but seems capable of keeping his responsibilities wisely in balance. Everyone is just waiting for him to show himself as fallible. And it happens, with disastrous consequences for the people within his orbit: Lewis, an older priest; a homely cook named Alice; a younger priest, Stacy; and Darrow's wife, Rosalind. Although each is spellbound by Darrow's skills, they all discover that he has serious neuroses, stemming from a childhood dread of chaos. When those issues surface in a sexual miscalculation, Darrow triggers a chain of events that pits the concept of demon-possession against murky definitions of mental illness and forces everyone involved to examine his or her ideas about God and humanity. After some slow going in the early chapters, Howatch engrosses the reader in this splendidly wrought, provocative novel of spiritual ideas. (Nov.)