Set in 7th century England, The Oblate’s Confession tells the story of Winwaed, a boy who – in a practice common at the time – is donated by his father to a local monastery. In a countryside wracked by plague and war, the child comes to serve as a regular messenger between the monastery and a hermit living on a nearby mountain. Missing his father, he finds a surrogate in the hermit, an old man who teaches him woodcraft, the practice of contemplative prayer, and, ultimately, the true meaning of fatherhood. When the boy’s natural father visits the monastery and asks him to pray for the death of his enemy – an enemy who turns out to be the child’s monastic superior – the boy’s life is thrown into turmoil. It is the struggle Winwæd undergoes to answer the questions – Who is my father? Whom am I to obey? – that animates, and finally necessitates, The Oblate’s Confession.
While entirely a work of fiction, the novel’s background is historically accurate: all the kings and queens named really lived, all the political divisions and rivalries actually existed, and each of the plagues that visit the author’s imagined monastery did in fact ravage that long-ago world. In the midst of a tale that touches the human in all of us, readers will find themselves treated to a history of the “Dark Ages” unlike anything available today outside of textbooks and original source material.
In the materials I was sent along with The Oblate’s Confession there was a mention of a connection to the work of the Venerable Bede. This link to Bede, whose work featured in some of my Old English classes at university drew me to this work. Yet it wasn’t the straight historical fiction novel I was expecting. Instead it included a huge amount of philosophical passages about the nature of prayer and faith. It made for an interesting, yet at times slow, read. I do have to say that I think that the book would have worked better for me if I’d gone in with different expectations. I expected an interesting, politically driven or at least struggle for dominance-driven plot and I got a character study interlaced with theological and philosophical reflections. Had I known this before-hand, I would have probably not picked up the book, but I’m not sorry that I did. Winwæd’s tale is interesting and there where parts of the book that were compelling.
Even though the passages expounding on the nature of prayer and faith were interesting, they did feel quite numerous and often made the pace feel like wading through treacle. This philosophising combined with the style of narration – the narrator often gets somewhat sidetracked, especially by his more contemplative passages – gave the book a somewhat meandering feel. However, it wasn’t just the inclusion of these contemplations that slowed the pace, it was also the structure of the plot. While we get building stones for the larger arc dropped in early on, it took almost half the book before the larger plot actually kicked off. What I did appreciate about the narrative – in addition to its meticulous research – was how true Peak stays to the nature of his form; Winwæd writes his story as a confession and a penance and as such he is brutally honest, painting himself in what cannot be considered a flattering light. Yet while this made it hard to sympathise with him at times, it also makes him human and relatable.
What made the story shine for me were Winwæd’s bonds with his various mentors, Father Gwynedd, the hermit on Modra nect, Father Dagan, the Prior, and Brother Victricius, the furnace master. The most important of the three and my favourite was Father Hermit, a priest learned in the Celtic version of the Rule and the biggest influence on Winwæd’s spiritual education. I enjoyed the time he spent with Father Hermit and the way the hermit’s way of praying actually rather resembled classic meditation techniques. The closest thing Winwæd has to a true father figure is Father Dagan, who takes him under his wing on the day he arrives at the monastery. There is a moment late in the book where Dagan and Winwæd have a long talk about monastic life and the spiritual freedom obedience to the Rule brings Dagan. The tone of that discussion was beautifully written, with genuine affection and appreciation for each other. Winwæd’s time with Victricius is all about the practical and I really liked this grumpy old Brother. The time they spent together while snowed-in was special, especially when Victricius shares his history with Winwæd.
Though I ultimately enjoyed The Oblate’s Confession, I think this book would probably not be to every reader’s taste. Who then would I recommend this too? To readers interested in the history of monasticism in England or to people interested in the philosophy and teachings of the Catholic faith. If you’re looking for a straight historical fiction read, this isn’t the book for you. If you’re looking for a book delving deeper into matters of faith and the spiritual and don’t need a super-fast plot development, I think The Oblate Confession might very well be a book you’d enjoy a lot.
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