Knowledge of Angels

Jill Paton Walsh, Black Swan, 1995, $21.95.

Reviewed by Lloyd Geering, SOF NZ Newsletter #12, July 1995

Members may have heard the radio review of this novel by a writer better known for her children's books. It is best described as a medieval fable, set on an imaginary Mediterranean island in the fifteenth century. It was short-listed for the Booker prize and has received glowing reviews. Whether all readers will agree with this assessment is open to question, but its specific interest for the SOFN is that it is focused on the problem of God.

Palinor, a castaway from an unknown land (uncannily like the modern secular world), is an atheist who enters into friendly discussion with the orthodox priests of this medieval Christian society. All the traditional arguments for the existence of God are rehearsed and the plot is made more complex by the presence of a wolf-child who has not been exposed to Christian teaching. In many respects the novel is an attempt, by means of an imaginative fable, to compare the respective modes of thought in medieval and modern cultures and to explore how they relate to one another.