After years spent in hiding, a fugitive priest journeys into the heart of danger to preserve the interred form of an apocryphal saint marked for destruction. Deemed an apostate, he is fiercely pursued by an agent of the church and her party.
Reverberating with echoes of Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” William Broom’s “Corpus Grace” is a paean to the persistence of faith. Told in three parts—each named for its respective innominate protagonist—we move from one perspective to the next, seeking insight into this world we are thrust into, and since religion seems so central to it, the impact of belief systems as well.
Unfortunately, these details are kept purposefully vague. We learn of an empire and its state-sanctioned religion, intent on violently stamping out anything that veers outside its prescribed canon. We spend time with tribesmen and women on the fringe of empire, who secretly revere apocryphal saints and observe ancient traditions from a time in which they worshipped spirits instead. Nothing is named or defined; they are simply “the empire,” “the church,” “the steppe-people.” What little we are given often feels like shorthand references to real-world institutions—for instance, with its focus on saints, the dominant religion seems to suggest Catholic roots. Despite the speculative element (the priests welcome the consciousness of the saints into themselves to perform blessings), it’s a little disappointing to see Christianity again set as the default.
I would have also liked to have seen more done with the steppe-people, whom we learn little about. It seems clear that they are the victims of colonization, but this aspect is left frustratingly unexplored. They are universally looked upon with pity and condescension by the POV characters, like children who need firm guidance, and they are brutally punished if/when they deviate. At the end, when they are bestowed with the priest’s secrets, they even assume a role traditionally played by children once they are grown: that of an inheritor. This, I think, is problematic, considering the controversial legacy of Christian missionaries.
Of the main cast, the priest is most compelling. Described in the text as worn and weary, he nevertheless abides. Much like the nameless priest in “The Power and the Glory,” he continues to perform rites and blessings for the adherents who choose to shield him. He offers comfort to the persecuted, a comfort that he denies himself, and eventually risks his own safety in an attempt to defend the barrow of his saint, Mirabina. However, because we jump into the heads of other characters, we do not spend the time we need to fully feel his sacrifice. The second section, which follows the inquisitor, is perhaps the weakest of the piece; it provides quick forward motion and action, but to the detriment of the priest’s arc. Here, we learn the most about the world, yet it also introduces concepts that are only briefly alighted on—interesting concepts, but perhaps ultimately superfluous.
Despite its issues, “Corpus Grace” is an ambitious piece that draws on literary traditions. There are real moments of beauty in the prose, and it approaches its complex central themes with clarity and sincerity, which is sometimes difficult to achieve.