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Book review

The Heartbreaker

By Susan Howatch

Little Brown Publishing 2003


This is the story of a high class and very successful sex worker who is living a lie. Underneath the sex and sleaze lies a severely wounded young person caught in an intricate web of power and evil. Through a series of serendipitous meetings two lives, both in search of freedom and a new life come into contact with each other. Those who have read any of ‘The Starbridge' novels or the first two novels from the St Benet's series - ‘A Question of Integrity' or ‘The High Flyer' will immediately recognise some of the characters such as  Nicholas Darrow, Lewis, and Carta Graham as well as Howatch's style as she weaves key theological discussion into the lives of her characters.


St Benet's, is a healing centre, operating out of an old church in London. It  brings together the professional skills of modern medicine, psycho-therapy and spiritual direction under a wider canvas of Christian healing which allows for God to be very much at work in individual's lives. The centre incorporates a mix of prayer, counselling and healing services. In relationship, God is able to bring real healing to broken lives - the kind of healing that brings integrity of body, mind and spirit. Running below the story line, the complex sexual moral issues of homosexuality, prostitution, marriage and non-married partnerships that have permeated the modern church are teased out.


A number of key themes are dealt with through the lives of the characters - many are  worthy of note, but a couple caught my eye. The first is the role of community in discussing and praying together in order to discern a course of action in a complex ethical minefield. In the novel no easy answers are  given. No simple rule-based morality is tolerated.


As one of the characters says in the  midst of the community search for answers - “I think this is one of those cases where we have to acknowledge the conventional rules and then summon the courage to step outside them. My father used to say that only by wholeheartedly embracing the monastic framework could a monk know when it was safe to step outside that framework in order to serve God in a situation where an orthodox response seemed inadequate.” Another describes the process saying - “We talked and talked. Some people think Christians have an easy time deciding what's right and what's wrong, but they are usually the people who think Christianity is a monolith, all Christians are fundamentalists and the Bible is like an ethical phone directory, listing every correct response in black and white.” Howatch certainly doesn't opt for a simple right and wrong, black and white approach. Human sexuality and spirituality are too complex, too intertwined for that.


The second was the place for a multi-disciplinary approach to well-being, drawing together the place of salvation and integrity, medicine and prayer, relationship and psycho-therapy, gentle care and the honest confronting of issues.


I've read all of Howatch's novels in the Starbridge and St Benet's series. Each time I've said the latest is her best - it's definitely the case with ‘The Heartbreaker'.                  

Alan Jamieson

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