My Brother, the Witch
New York Times Book Review, January 4th, 1987
By Meg Wolitzer
Many novels about adolescence contain scenes in which the young protagonist is placed under extreme peer pressure, commonly involving drugs or cigarettes or premature sex acts. In Tongues of Flame, the hero undergoes peer pressure of an unusual variety: to fit in, 15-year-old Richard Bowen must start speaking in tongues. All around him people are doing it; wherever he looks, it seems, someone is muttering nonsense words in a corner.
Tim Parks opens his first novel in 1968, in the wealthy, suburban English vicarage where Richard’s father presides over an ordinary, peaceful parish. Enter Donald Rolandson, a young curate who brings with him the “Sword of the Spirit,” and with it a frenzy of religious fanaticism. Soon everyone in the parish has become obsessed, everyone, that is, except Richard. Tongues of Flame – initially rejected by six agents and 20 publishers, and last year’s winner of England’s Somerset Maugham Award for writer’s under 35 – is a hilarious and original portrait of a young boy grappling with good and evil, two concepts that have been instilled in him by his fanatical but well-intentioned father. According to Richard’s father, Satan is lurking everywhere, manifesting himself in “Chairman Mao, the Russians, the Vietnamese, the left-wing of the Labour Party, the unions, drugs, pornography, sex outside marriage, and certain types of modern music.”
Mr. Parks (don’t you love the Mr?) has a good eye for period detail, and he gives us a convincing illustration of British provincial life at a time when the world, according to Richard, was characterized by “an explosion of new hairstyles and new religions.” Although larger, political turbulence is alluded to throughout, for Richard the most visible turbulence can be found in his own home, where the drama is of a religious and, as it turns out, a sexual nature. Sexuality is embodied by Richard’s older brother, Adrian, who openly sneers at the fanaticism that surrounds him and seeks fulfilment instead in smoking pot and sleeping with his girlfriend. As the Bowen family becomes more and more obsessed with big ideas about Satan, Adrian’s way of life is tolerated less and less. Adrian is a complicated character; the author doesn’t fall prey to making him a sensitive young rebel of the James Dean school, but instead fleshes Adrian out, making him both nihilist and hedonist, and a force to reckon with. Adrian is extremely bright, with “a mind like a scalpel,” according to Mr. Bowen, who goes on to tell his older son that he should treat Richard and his sister, Anna, kindly, for they “weren’t that bright in the end,” but that everybody is “equal under God.”
Richard meekly absorbs his father’s perception of him, and this helps set Adrian’s specialness into relief. To Richard, and finally to everyone in the community,Adrian is extremely powerful. In an ordinary late-6O’s household, Adrian would be viewed as just another sullen teen-ager with all the accouterments of the breed: long, unkempt hair, loud music and telltale smoke emanating from the bedroom. But in the Bowen household these elements are eventually decoded as “signs,” proof that Satan himself lives upstairs. The novel’s climactic scenes take place during the church’s annual Youth Fellowship house party, a religious retreat for teen-agers held at a ramshackle boarding school. The special guest lecturer this year is Joy Kandinsky, an American evangelist in a pink pantsuit. She tells an impassioned story about a young homosexual man who was eventually “cuorange” through the Lord, and then she goes on to announce that there is someone in the room who is tortuorange by homosexual longing, and she urges him or her to come forward and be saved. Richard, who throughout the novel has remained curious but neutral about matters both religious and sexual, is forced at this point to examine his entire identity, as well as the identities of those around him. He realizes that he must start to form opinions and choose sides.
This realization is heightened by an outright witch hunt, of which Adrian is the quarry. A posse is formed to track down Adrian, who has been openly avoiding lectures and has been having sex with his girlfriend on the grounds of the boarding school. Richard watches in horror as his brother is apprehended, and a ritual exorcism ensues. This scene is perhaps the most powerful in the novel, and we hear a new voice emerging from Richard; one that is fierce and surprising.
What happens next feels extraneous, tacked on by the author for the sake of action, when the most interesting action is internal. As one brother is exorcised of “evil” the other brother, in a sense, is exorcised of passivity. Tongues of Flame approaches the notion of transformation on many levels – religious, sexual, emotional and intellectual. With all his inexperience and timidity throughout much of the book, Richard is a perfect character to embody that idea.