In my last essay for The Imaginative Conservative, I offered a panoramic survey of the best of contemporary Christian literature, both poetry and prose. As a follow-up, I’d like to recommend twelve works of contemporary Christian fiction that everyone should read.
Here’s the list, arranged alphabetically by author, together with a brief explanation for each title’s selection:
1. Bearings and Distances by Glenn Arbery (2015)
A gruesome and sordidly dark novel, set in the proud and prejudiced heart of the American South, Dr. Arbery’s novel is not for the squeamish, the prudish, or the faint-hearted. It catalogues the decline and fall of characters who allow their desire for self-gratification to cause chaos in their own lives and in the lives of others.
2. Skylark Farm by Antonia Arslan (2004)
Another gruesome novel that charts with unflinching candour the full horror of the Armenian holocaust as experienced by one family.
3. A Postcard from the Volcano by Lucy Beckett (2009)
Like Skylark Farm, Lucy Beckett’s novel begins during the dark years of World War One. Unlike Arslan’s novel, which spans only a few, short brutal months, Ms. Beckett’s novel spans from the beginning of one world war to the beginning of the next.
4. The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera (2013)
A simply delightful novel, offering much-needed light relief after the darkness and gravitas of the first three titles on the list. It is charming and disarming in equal measure. Comparisons with Jane Austen have been suggested. Imagine the spirit of the inimitable Miss Austen infused with Chestertonian wisdom and innocence. Imagine a haven of sanity in the midst of the madness of modernity. Imagine Merrie England or Tolkien’s Shire transfigured in modern-day Spain. Imagine all these things, and you begin to get some idea of why this debut novel proved to be a surprise international bestseller.
5. Treason by Dena Hunt (2013)
Another historical novel, this time set in Elizabethan England and focusing on the relentless persecution of English Catholics during the reign of Bloody Bess. Comparisons with R. H. Benson’s Come Rack! Come Rope! are inescapable and are warranted not merely in terms of theme but in terms of the quality of the prose and the storytelling.
6. Death of a Liturgist by Lorraine V. Murray (2010)
This is lighter fare but warrants a place on the list for its satirical depiction of liturgical modernism, its delightful humour, and its weaving of suspenseful mystery.
7. A Bloody Habit by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson (2018)
I will allow my endorsement, printed on the back cover, to speak for itself: Imagine a cross between Dracula and The Exorcist, written with the literary flourish of the former and the Catholic sensibility of the latter, and you will have some idea of how this heavenly hybrid on a hellish theme speaks with such death-defying and grave-shattering power.
8. A Cry of Stone by Michael D. O’Brien (2003)
Almost any of Mr. O’Brien’s novels could have been selected, though his most celebrated novel, Father Elijah, does not qualify for the present list as it was published before the turn of the present century. As with Mr. O’Brien’s genre generally, this is a disturbing novel made bearable by the subtle presence of grace.
9. Oregon Confetti by Lee Oser (2017)
There are aspects of this novel that are flawed and sometimes irritatingly so, not least of which is its ending, in which the author selected the ambience of ambivalence and ambiguity over the satisfying deliverance of closure, and yet it is full of delightful and deliciously satirical observations on the nonsense of modern life. It’s fun and often funny, reminiscent of early Waugh.
10. The Book of Jotham by Arthur Powers (2013)
As the parent of a child with Down syndrome and autism, this novella speaks to me with the same painful and excruciating resonance as does Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away. The crucial difference is that Jotham is set at the time of Christ and indeed in the very presence of the Lord Himself. In such a setting, the cruelty that the mentally-disabled protagonist experiences at the hands of sinful men is always mitigated by the consoling presence of Christ and His Mother. Arthur Powers is truly inspired in the way that he imagines a mentally-disabled disciple of Christ witnessing the life of the Lord at first hand. We all know the story being told but not through the eyes of the very special person seeing it. To read The Book of Jotham is to read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with new and strangely-gifted eyes.
11. Declare by Tim Powers (2000)
Tim Powers’ masterful interweaving of plots and timescapes in this supernaturally-charged spy thriller offers a labyrinthine journey through mid-twentieth century Europe, traversing the political landscape from Civil War to World War to Cold War. I am simply in awe at Mr. Powers’ ability to hold such a convoluted narrative fabric together without its becoming unraveled in its own too-muchness. A mythopoeic masterpiece!
12. The Death of a Pope by Piers Paul Read (2009)
My final selection is a thriller by Piers Paul Read centered on the intrigues surrounding a papal enclave, especially with regard to the connection between modernist members of the hierarchy and sinister forces associated with terrorism. At a time in which modernist shenanigans are once again disturbing the Church, this work of fiction seems uncomfortably close to reality.
Having selected a dozen delights, superstition prevents my adding a thirteenth to the list, which means that Jerusalem, Jerusalem! by Chilton Williamson, Jr., being the last alphabetically, has been shunted off. Needless to say, it warrants inclusion, as my earlier review of it for The Imaginative Conservative illustrates.
In closing, I’d urge readers to refrain from taking my word for the merits of the titles selected. On the contrary, they should prove me right or wrong by buying these books and reading them. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, not in the reading of the recipe.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Editor’s Note: The featured image above is “Books,” photographed by Martin Vorel.