Fiorella de Maria's new novel is driven by vivid characters and a tense, believable plot
Apparently it is unusual for one Ignatius novelist to review another, but I cannot resist chatting about Fiorella de Maria’s excellent legal thriller Do No Harm. This is partly because, like De Maria, I am a Catholic migrant to the United Kingdom and, to a certain extent (for I live in Scotland, not England), the legal, medical and ecclesiastical systems she describes affect me, too. And as I read her story, I began to recognize other aspects, and perhaps actual personalities, of Catholic British life. Only a million Catholics in England and Wales bother go to Mass on Sunday; British Catholics live their devotional life in a small pond.
Do No Harm centres around the fate of Dr. Matthew Kemble, an English physician who is charged with assault and battery after saving the life of a suicidal young woman with a so-called “living will.” Daisy comes from an aristocratic family with historical ties to the eugenics and euthanasia movements. Dr. Kemble had campaigned fruitlessly again the “End of Life Care Bill”, never suspecting that he himself would be the first doctor whose conscience it would seek to override. Daisy’s brother, furious that Daisy had received life-saving care, reports Dr. Kemble to the police. Before long, Dr. Kemble is arrested at home in front of his wife and four small children and led to a waiting police car in handcuffs. Daisy lies in a coma.
Although the story is told from several points of view, the role of protagonist lies equally between Dr. Kemble and his solicitor’s assistant, Maria. As a passionate, twenty-two-year-old law student and Catholic activist, Maria serves as an excellent foil to the mild-mannered, middle-aged, almost milquetoast Matthew. Matthew is the kind of old-fashioned, upper middle-class public school boy (the Jesuit school he and his solicitor attended is almost certainly Stoneyhurst) who thinks being noticed is in terrible taste. Although descended from English Catholic martyrs, he has no wish to become one himself. Maria is, in the words of her employer Jonathan Kirkpatrick, “fairly typical of that John Paul generation of London Catholic…orthodox, highly strung, highly educated, take themselves far too seriously, but we can forgive them that.” She also has a taste for risk and adventure, which gets her ejected from buildings, arrested and eventually beaten black and blue. Matthew is a loveable martyr because he isn’t cut out for martyrdom. Maria is a loveable heroine because her ruses never work.
Both the plot and a sub-plot concerning a pregnant Chinese teenager at risk of deportation are compelling, and the pacing is good. What impresses me most about the book, however, are the characters. Either De Maria has based solicitor Jonathan and his wife Freya Kirkpatrick closely on people I know, or she has pulled off the author’s magic trick of making a reader believe the characters must be real. They are wonderfully vivid, both because De Maria makes harmonious contrasts—sensitive Matthew is a family man with a Madonna-like Spanish wife; charming Jonathan is childless and married to an old-fashioned “jolly hockey sticks” Englishwoman—and because she has an eye and ear for detail. If you have romantic PBS fantasies about London, De Maria expels them for you. London is a tough, crowded, multi-ethnic place, absolutely lousy with class divisions and resentments.
The plot is is all too believable. A Scottish doctor snarls that Matthew’s trial is obscene: “The state doesn’t want honest, hardworking, conscientious doctors. It wants automatons following procedures.” One of the the most uncomfortable aspects of my life in the UK has been dealing with doctors who keep offering me IVF treatments despite my repeated assertions that as a Catholic I have serious moral objections to IVF.
My one argument with the book, or with the character Maria, is the unexplained anti-English feeling. Maria, reveals only on page 159 that she is “not bloody English.” As Maria went to a girls’ boarding school and to Oxford and works like the dickens for illegal migrants without mentioning her own foreign origins, I was very surprised to read this. Later Maria trashes the native English thusly: “It was so, so very English! All these frosty people trapped behind their own ironic detachment, too cowardly to reach out and empathise with any other member of the human race—let alone someone of whom they did not approve—until they had forgotten how it felt to feel the stirrings of human affection and solidarity.”
Well, steady on, there, Maria. Meanwhile, she’s never been to Scotland, so is she Welsh? Irish? Polish? (The only non-English characters Maria holds in dislike are Polish.) Since one of the themes of the book is the lack of British sensitivity to illegal migrants, her own roots do indeed matter.
Britain’s unprecedented mass migration is seen almost entirely from an immigrant’s point of view; the culture-shocked English working classes make their appearance in the novel solely as unsympathetic bureaucratic drones or thugs. If not English, Maria is terribly British in that she is deeply influenced by the vampirish class system. She loathes both “arrogant toffs” and button-pushing prols while adoring (and, by virtual adoption, belonging to) the Oxbridge educated, Catholic segment of the upper middle classes. Of course, Maria’s class prejudices make her all the more believable as an authentically British character.
My conclusion is that this, at last, is a novel about us, which is to say, faithful, university educated Catholics in the UK today. I will certainly recommend this book to all my Catholic friends, and if the bureaucratic British powers that be would like to know what educated, faithful British Catholics think of them, they need only read Do No Harm.