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Modern Gods by Nick Laird

Published by Viking on June 27, 2017

In addition to its subordinate themes, Modern Gods is a story about religious conflict, told from two perspectives. One involves the ongoing consequences of the violent clash between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The other involves a violent clash between Christianity and an emerging religion.

Liz Donnelly isn’t happy teaching in America, particularly when she catches her latest boyfriend in bed with another man. She accepts an invitation to work on a documentary about a new religious movement in the South Pacific, but first she returns to her hometown in Ulster for her sister’s wedding.

The first third of the novel introduces Liz’ family. Her brother Spencer is having an affair with Trish Hutchinson, whose husband is probably having his own affairs when he’s not golfing with Spencer. Liz’ sister Alison frets about motherhood and her mother Judith frets about her empty nest. At least her father Kenneth, who is in poor health and has reason to fret, keeps his anxieties about himself to himself.

The early drama involves Alison’s marriage to Stephen McLean, who seems an improvement on her abusive ex-husband despite his mysterious past. Only after the wedding does the family learn — by reading it in a newspaper — the truth about McLean’s actions as a member of the Ulster Freedom Fighters during the Troubles twenty years earlier.

The story then shifts settings as it follows Liz to an island called New Ulster off the coast of Papau New Guinea. She is with a documentary team that wants to tell the story of a woman who has founded a new religion. The best part of that plot thread focuses on the megalomania of the alt-religious leader, the destructive influence she has on the weak minds that follow her teachings, and the mainstream Christian missionaries who are scarcely better.

In some respects, the story in New Ulster seems contrived, particularly when Liz takes a more participatory role in tribal life than is appropriate for a documentarian. Still, I like the message the story sends about the threat that mainstream religions feel from emerging religions, particularly when they coexist in a community and are competing for members. That story ends tragically, and I like the questions the novel asks about whether such tragedies are inevitable and how blame for them should be shared.

The novel’s best moments come when Stephen tells his story. He makes it easy to understand why people who consider themselves to be the victims of injustice take unjust actions, even if those actions are inexcusable. His story also makes clear that there was plenty of injustice on both sides in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Stephen’s recollections lead to a powerful confrontation that reveals the needless cruelty caused by religious conflict.

The story of violence in Ulster echoes a moment of violence in New Ulster, honing the theme that religious conflict in all parts of the globe is ultimately pointless, regardless of the religious beliefs that compel one person to treat another as unworthy of life. Perhaps that parallel is a bit obvious, and I’m not sure why it was illustrated with a fictional religion in a fictional place when the reality of religious strife is everywhere, but the parallel stories nevertheless serve to make a compelling point.

The small stories of the Donnelly family, their way of talking without communicating, their reliance on familiar conversations about the past as a way of avoiding the present, root the novel in a sense of reality that makes the larger stories seem plausible. The small stories about family members battling loneliness and their desperation for love balance the larger stories of religious conflict.

Nick Laird writes with the graceful assurance that reflects his training as a poet. There is a lot going on Modern Gods, and if the story is a bit uneven, its best moments truly shine.


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