It’s an odd feeling when you both really like and really struggle with a book but that’s how I feel about The Spire.
The novel was published in 1964 and is set in an unnamed medieval cathedral (it is said to be loosely based on Salisbury). Dean Jocelin has been told in a vision to build a spire on his cathedral, although it has no foundations. His master builder, Roger Mason, tells him it is not possible, and that the cathedral will collapse. The work disrupts the life of the cathedral, its routines, its delicate networks of status and affection, but Jocelin will not back down.
It’s a dark story of obsession, very concentrated and intense, and almost every scene takes place within the walls of the cathedral. I was fascinated by the story, by how one man’s vision, in the face of all the evidence, can wreak havoc with an entire community, if that man has institutional power.
Jocelin’s vision is counterpointed with that of Roger Mason. The two men are locked in struggle, but Mason is, in his way, as much a visionary as Jocelin. He uses techniques which have never been used in their isolated corner of the world (though Jocelin has a vague idea that such buildings exist ‘elsewhere’).
Jocelin is at turns wheedling, bullying and inspiring. As the delicate social balance of the community is strained, the text is ambiguous enough to leave you to make up your own mind. Are they really all the victim’s of Jocelin’s obsession, or are these forces that were already coming to a head?
Despite all the positives, I might have struggled to get through The Spire without Benedict Cumberbatch’s dramatic narration to help me navigate the text. (I looked at the Kindle sample wondering if it would be easier to read it instead, and decided definitely not.)
Jocelin’s intensity is fascinating but it makes him a difficult character to be around. The imagery that Golding uses is dense and at times hard to follow. There is also an awful lot of physical description which I struggled with at times (unlike Jocelin I’m not good at visualising something that I haven’t seen).
In the end I resorted to listening to the book in short bursts, and that got me through. I’m glad I persevered. Sometimes reading is about learning and experiencing something and not entertainment in the narrowest sense.
Enjoyed this? If you like literary fiction with a medieval setting, take a look at my review of Morality Play by Barry Unsworth