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Black Robe by Brian Moore

I’ve always ranked Brian Moore as one of Ireland’s premiere writers, up there with John McGahern and William Trevor. In my mind’s eye, I see McGahern presenting the viewpoint of Catholic Ireland, Trevor giving the dispossessed Protestant angle on things and Moore representing Northern Ireland. Of course, I’m being unfair in ring fencing three of our greatest writers in such a cavalier fashion. All are far more versatile that that.

Moore, in particular, produced in his lifetime a wide ranging variety of novels. A good case in point is Black Robe, which is set in 17th Century Quebec and environs and tells the story of a French Catholic priest charged with travelling to a remote mission where the incumbent priests are feared either dead or very sick from a fever that is rumoured to be running through the local tribe of Indians.

The priest, Father Paul Laforgue, is helped in his journey by a group of Algonkian Indians and accompanied by lay person Daniel Davost, who has set his sights on becoming a priest. However, Daniel is drawn to Indian girl Annuka, who is part of the Algonkian group escorting them to their destination, and the stage is set for a story that explores a multitude is issues, from the nature, function and inherent contradictions of celibacy to the wholesale clash of cultures that threatens to destroy the local Indian tribes’ ways of life.

The misguided and manipulative interference of the Catholic Church is recounted with devastating clarity. The Indian Tribes are presented in an unsentimental light, Moore looking at the beauty of their worldview and outrageous cruelty in equal measure. In fact, there is a major turning point in the story about two thirds the way in that is so unexpectedly monstrous, it takes your breath away.

This is a novel that seriously deserves a new printing (although you can get copies via Amazon). In fact, the time is right for a publisher to look at reprinting Moore’s entire catalogue of work.

Black Robe by Brian Moore (Plume Books, pb, 256pp, €12.16)

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