William Peak‘s The Oblate’s Confession is a beautifully written fictional study of an oblate (think monk’s apprentice) within a medieval monastery. It’s essentially a series of loosely related vignettes in the life of Winwæd, son of Ceolwulf, as an oblate who is placed in some unique roles within the community at Redstone. The stories are from his perspective. Mr. Peak does a beautiful job, using Winwæd, to convey the life and times of a 7th century monastic community and the village and people around it while establishing its place in the Anglo-Saxon world. One of the aspects of his writing I love is his ability to provide empathetic, genuine-feeling characters and their perspective of the world. There is a thread of what Winwæd considers his great sin that is woven throughout the narrative which a more jaded author would present in a negative light where it’s silly of him to think his prayer had the impact he believed it did. Mr. Peak takes his world seriously manner, not belittling the characters who people it for having a medieval point of view nor does he belittle their life of faith. He does have his characters step back and assess their life but it’s never simply dismissed carte blanche. [Note: I received an advanced review copy through Netgalley for an honest review. The Oblate’s Confession will be available December 1st.]
There is a challenge Mr. Peak has given his readers, however. There is no overall story arc to which the narrative drives. There’s no climax, no crescendo and no big reveal. No point to which the book drives. Like most of our lives, there are some smaller climatic moments, there are highs and lows and there are things we discover. While there may be a purpose to our lives, it’s often not written in an obvious way. So too for Winwæd. Now, the descriptions, vignettes, characters and writing are all worthwhile without having some big story to tell, but this is a heads-up to those of you who need that kind of story. I personally think that if there is somewhere it all drives, it makes for a more compelling read and provides a framework to present the characters and places. I think Mr. Peak’s next work could benefit from doing so. However, I want to be very clear: as it stands, this was a truly delightful book to read, I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t need a fast-paced page-turner. Knowing how it’s structured, I would read it again. I also think there are a number of life lessons to be gleaned from Winwæd and his world.
I find almost all of the characters intriguing but the relationship between Winwæd and the hermit, Father Gwynedd is the most poignant. While he fit the somewhat esoteric character of a holy man and hermit, he also saw many things as they are, not as he wished them to be. His response might be different than ours; most of us are brought up to believe that submissive obedience to bad leadership is downright sinful where he saw that doing so was a fulfillment of God’s call and a privilege. However, he was not deluded regarding the monastery leadership’s foibles or the faults of those he loved. He was grounded in his character even while he was quite other-worldly in his perspective. Along with his teaching, I love the little moments with Winwæd, the time of following a fox, little lessons by the fire and the time simply sitting in the snow.
So, what are some of the things I love about The Oblate’s Confession? Mr. Peak’s ability to capture a moment, a story in miniature. Mr. Peak. Is like a landscape and portrait artist who paints a tableau. Each tableau is a story in miniature which each mini-story tied to Winwæd and his sin. I love the characters and the sense of genuineness in their portrayal. I also love the writing. It’s not that it’s extraordinarily beautiful, but it is extraordinarily honest and he does have some interesting turns of phrase.
“You know it’s interesting, isn’t it, how you can remember something like that so clearly, can remember duck-walking a stone across a muddy field, what it was like when, arms tired from the carry, you heaved the thing onto the pile, the disappointment you felt as it landed lower than expected, slid miserably, unimportantly , to the bottom of the heap? But I suppose it’s always that way with the conversations we value in our lives, the ones our memories serve up to us again and again. “
Where do I see the book could use improvement? As I indicated above, I have a preference for a stronger narrative drive. So while I thoroughly enjoyed the tableaus, hooking them through a stronger story arc would be preferred (and, I suspect, make the novel appealing to more readers).
I enjoin you to read The Oblate’s Confession on its arrival December 1st and meet Victricius the furnace master, Father Dagan, Prior of Redstone even the enigmatic Stuf along with the aforementioned Father Gwynedd. Join Winwæd’s jouney and learn of their dreams and heartaches, victories and failures and the swirl of the world around them. This is a solid 4 star debut novel.