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Unholy Child, by Catherine Breslin Book Review | SFReader.com
Unholy Child, by Catherine Breslin Genre: Horror Publisher: Signet Published: 1980 Review Posted: 10/9/2005 Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 7 out of 10
Unholy Child, by Catherine Breslin
Book Review by C. Dennis Moore
Have you read this book?
The back cover to Catherine Breslin's debut novel Unholy Child promises to "take you behind the convent walls to witness a sin so shameful, so taboo, that no one wants to even whisper about it." Eh. I suppose.
It starts with Sister Angela Flynn being admitted into the hospital with massive blood loss. She was found passed out on her bedroom floor in a pool of blood with no recollection of what's happened to her. The doctors begin to examine her and soon think Sister Angela's wounds look like she's just given birth. That's not possible, she assures them, there's no way she could have been pregnant. But when she then passes a placenta--the source of all her bleeding--they're sure of it, even though she's still adamantly denying any possibility she's had a child.
The police ask her fellow nuns to go back to Angela's room and search for this baby that is, according to the doctors, definitely there. Somewhere. The baby is found, but too late, and murder charges are expected, pending an investigation into the baby's death.
Unholy Child is a year in the life of Sister Angela Flynn and the people around her, a story of how this secret she's kept affects not only her but everyone she's come into contact with. From the title, I was expecting something like the anti-Christ, but all I got was a dead baby and a nun who doesn't remember being pregnant. The twist to this story is that Sister Angela has a split personality, there's also Gayle Flynn (Gayle was Angela's birth name before the order gave her "Angela"). Gayle is a lot more free with herself, drinking, having fun, picking up men. Angela has no idea Gayle exists. When Angela comes back from a blackout to find herself somewhere she doesn't recognize, hours missing from her life, she doesn't know what to think, and she keeps this a secret as well.
Also spotlighted in the novel is Meg Gavin, reporter for the local St. Paul newspaper. She's got her own past with the Church and Angela's story affects Meg on a deeper level than any other she's worked on. And there's Roy Danziger, the father of Angela's baby who hasn't seen or heard from her since they met the previous summer. There are also more cops in this book than I can even remember. The whole thing was exhausting.
The heart of this novel is an attack on the Catholic Church and its attitudes toward sex, as if none of this would have happened if the Church simply allowed its members, its nuns and priests, to have sex. That's the theory Meg Gavin comes up with, anyway, but like I said, she's got her issues with the church.
I admire Breslin's story, the depth and fullness of it, I admire how complete it is. But for a 501-page, "bestselling novel", it's very badly done. For one, throughout almost the entire novel, I felt was I being told the story instead of shown. You hear it all the time, show don't tell, and I could never fully grasp that because when I'm reading, I see the story. But in this case, even though I saw the story as I read it, I still felt I was being told it instead of shown, it's just in the way Breslin wrote it. Her scenes switch on a dime, before you can really get into one she's on the next, and instead of showing us, through actions and dialogue, what the characters are doing, she tells us. Angela did this, Angela did that, Angela felt like this. But we don't FEEL it from the characters. I know what Angela did, but I don't get a sense of how that AFFECTS Angela, what does Angela THINK about it? Show me the story, don't tell it to me.
Also, this book should have been a LOT shorter, but good God, Breslin feels she has to repeat everything she tells us. And the dialogue, wow. There's no way most of this dialogue should have made the final edit:
"Hey, Andy, I'm not saying that's the whole story. I'm not even sure yet that's really what's going on here. But look how it fits--like that sex stuff, Andy." He lurched back in his chair. "Look, there's probably only two explanations for those two real different versions of the sex, Andy. Either that's two different women having two kinds of sex. Or else Sister Angela's lying flat-out." Still no expression on DaSilva's face. "I mean, that's the only way I can figure it, Andy."
I'm sorry, who was she talking it? Joe? Bob? Carl? I can't remember his name . . .
Finally, I had a huge problem with Sister Angela herself. She's 34, she's a kindergarten principal. She's known since she was, I believe, 14 that she would be a nun. But she's just so STUPID. I'm sure Breslin was going for innocent or naive, but what she got was stupid.
With everything going on around her, everything happening to her, she sits through it all and lets it happen. She takes no active part in her own destiny, instead she watches it happen and thinks, "But I don't remember anything about my own real baby or that sex they talked about, but I know I'm not crazy and I just want to go back to work, why can't I just leave the hospital and go home, I'm feeling much better, I don't know what you're talking about, I passed a what? Are you sure that's what it was, because I don't remember anything about that sex or a baby or anything, why can't I just go back to work and pretend everything's fine?"
That's not a direct quote, just an illustration of Angela's attitudes. Even after she does remember having the baby, she still doesn't understand why she can't just go back to her life and pretend everything's fine. I know that was Breslin's point, that both Angela and the Church have the same attitude, out of sight out of mind, nope, nothing wrong here, I got that loud and clear and it's a very good point she makes. But reading it for 501 pages doesn't endear you to the character, it makes you want to slap them and scream "Why are you so stupid??? Stop being an idiot!!!"
I can see what Breslin was going for very clearly. I just didn't care. Unholy Child was such an infuriating novel to get through, with unlikable characters, a plot that was either dragging on--giving us 5 pages on a scene that, in the end, had no bearing on the outcome of the story--or skipping ahead a month from one scene to the next, not even one chapter to the next, I mean there'd be a scene break and when the next scene starts, it's Christmas break when we were just talking about November 2 paragraphs ago. Badly written, badly constructed, badly executed. I can admire what Breslin was hoping to do, I just don't think she did it very well, nor can I believe this novel was truly the "bestselling" work it's touted as. Published in 1979, I've only found a few other titles with Breslin's name on them, and nothing later than 1988. I have to say, I'm not surprised.
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