Review published on July 2, 2018.
Stephen Carter had known as a teenager that he was gay but had thought that his very traditional, unadventurous parents would never accept this. Aged sixteen, and soon after finishing his exams, he took all his savings and escaped to a new life in London where he reinvented himself. He became Stefano Cartwright and, giving little thought to the effect it might have on them, cut off all contact with his family, apart from sending a birthday card to his younger sister for the five years until she was eighteen.
As the story opens, he is living in Hackney, working in a gay bar and is in a committed relationship with Adam, with whom he is enjoying a holiday on a small volcanic island. In general, his life feels pretty good and he is reasonably content. However, a freak accident is about to plunge him into a state of utter confusion and make him question all his previously held beliefs and assumptions. When a massive wave almost kills him, he has a near death, out of body experience. As a fellow holiday maker is giving him the kiss of life, he finds himself travelling up a tunnel of light, a journey which culminates in a close encounter with a giant blue eye peering back at him. When the life-saving efforts work and Stefano regains consciousness, he is convinced that what he saw was the eye of God and believes that, if he is not to end up in hell, he needs to change his life. This belief will have profound effects, not just on him but on everyone he is close to.
As this is happening to Stefano, God is looking down his “seeing tube”, surveying, as he has been doing since he created it, his vast universe. The commotion on the beach draws his attention and he focuses his tube on it, only to be taken aback when he sees two large green eyes looking back at him, first in astonishment and then in fear. They suddenly disappear and his tube becomes dark, leaving him confused about what has just happened. Over the millennia he has paid sporadic attention to planet Earth, observing its progress in a vaguely affectionate but rather desultory way. However, the experience of being spotted is a new, and not altogether welcome one. Intrigued, and possibly bored, he decides to find out more about the fate of Stefano and his life on earth.
This wonderful story (the title is taken from The Wreck of the Deutschland by Gerard Manley Hopkins) is told in alternating chapters through the voices of Stefano, Adam and God (an important fourth voice is introduced later in the book but I don’t want to spoil the surprise of whose voice that is!). The reader follows their struggles as each of them tries to adjust and come to terms with the implications of Stefano’s struggle to reconcile his gay lifestyle with his new-found belief in the existence of what, he assumes, is a disapproving, judgemental God.
There are moments of truly laugh-out-loud humour throughout the story as the author describes the personal journey each of his characters makes. It turns out that it isn’t only the humans who are confused, God is often equally perplexed about his place in the universe and what may exist beyond its boundaries. He often frets about this and then tries to convince himself that he must stop himself creating potential catastrophes! The idea of God often feeling very alone in his vast universe and using his “telescope” to see what was going on “out there” was certainly a novel one and I frequently found myself feeling rather sorry for him! I loved his frequently hilarious reflections on his observations of human behaviour and his becoming perplexed about all the strange notions people have about his existence and his powers. He cannot, for instance, understand how people have come to believe that he has a son!
Although there is a humorous lightness to Simon Edge’s writing, there is an underlying seriousness to many of his thought-provoking explorations on life and human behaviour, on the complexities of relationships, on belief, religion and spirituality and on the propensity for human beings to exaggerate their significance in the universe. The story captures the huge shift there has been in the church’s attitudes towards gay people since the turn of the millennium, when there was considerable opposition to any dismantling of discriminatory anti-gay laws and when homosexuality was firmly denounced as a sin by so many senior clerics. Whilst these attitudes do still exist, they are far less strident than they once were and are now more frequently and confidently challenged.
Another theme which runs throughout the story is what gay people do or do not share with family and friends and how fears of rejection frequently stop people from being honest about their sexuality. However, this avoidance all too often fails to recognise the capacity people have to accept difference, to encompass change and to unreservedly offer love and support, without judgement or condemnation. Consequently, at its heart, this is a story about the need to be true to oneself, about love and tolerance, forgiveness and redemption.
This thought-provoking exploration of homosexuality, atheism and God with a telescope is a delight. Without any reservation I recommend it as a story which will both make you laugh and make you think.
Linda Hepworth 5/5
The Hurtle of Hell by Simon Edge
Lightning Books 9781785630712 pbk Jul 2018