Cold Heaven by Brian Moore

Reviewed by Harriet

This is the first book I’ve read by the multi-award-winning Irish Canadian author, but on the strength of this remarkable novel I’ve really been missing out. Published in 1988 and just reissued by Turnpike Books, Cold Heaven is an almost hallucinatory read in which the reader meets confusion at many points and many questions remain unanswered.

Marie Davenport is on holiday with her husband Alex in the South of France. She is planning to leave him for her lover Daniel once the holiday is over, but everything changes when, swimming in the Mediterranean from the pedalo they have hired, he is hit on the head by a speeding motorboat. After an agonising wait in the hospital, Marie is informed by a doctor that  Alex has died: ‘I’m afraid there was not much we could do. He suffered a fracture, not a large fracture, but obviously he did have a great blow on his head which produced a severe concussion’. Returning to the hotel, she finds herself in a state of great confusion:

Is it because of what I didn’t do? Did they kill him because of that? Vengeance or coincidence? Her mind, like a windlass running down a well, fell again into the pit of that ineluctable question.

If the reader is hoping to find out who ‘they’ are, a disappointment is in store. But more of that later. Meanwhile, Marie goes to the hospital next morning to hear the results of an autopsy, only the be told that her husband’s body has disappeared from the morgue. The hospital has no explanation, and absolutely rejects the suggestion of a misdiagnosis, believing the body must have been stolen for some inexplicable reason. However, when she returns to the hotel, she discovers that Alex’s passport, plane ticket, travellers cheques and cash are missing, together with some of his clothes. At the airport she is told he has boarded a flight to New York, but when she manages to get there herself there is no sign of him in their flat and it’s unclear whether he has ever been there. If he is really alive, why is he avoiding her? 

Following a scribbled note she finds in the flat, Marie makes her way to California where, at the Point Lobos Motor Inn, where she and Daniel had been planning to meet, she finally discovers Alex. He is indeed alive, but in a very strange state, still sometimes losing all his vital signs and appearing to be dead from time to time. Even when alive, he is bizarrely unlike his usual self, his eyes sometimes appearing to be veiled in some mysterious way. He refuses to see a doctor, saying he doesn’t want to be seen as ‘a sort of Lazarus’.

So far so psychological thriller. But just as the reader may have hoped for an explanation of Alex’s bizarre condition, Marie’s story takes another turn. Out for a walk on the cliffs, she finds herself outside a convent, which proves to hold the very same order of nuns as the one she attended in Montreal. Wandering into the chapel, she sees a large statue of Our Lady of Monterey, which she finds repellant. For her it is:

as empty of mystery, as unsuitable for veneration, as a doll on sale in a department store. And yet as she looked up at its face, it came to her that this very doll could be reason for what had happened to Alex in Nice.

From this point on, Marie’s sense in France that she was being punished takes on a concrete form. Everything that happens is now fraught with significance and she feels herself forced to follow innocent-seeming remarks as being instructions, which she must carry out in order not to incur further punishment. She becomes a regular visitor at the convent, though always making sure that the nuns understand her complete rejection of their religion. While there, she arranges a meeting with Monsignor Cassidy, to whom she describes a vision she had the previous year on the nearby cliffs, following an adulterous night at the Motor Inn with Daniel. A young girl, dressed entirely in white and surrounded by a golden halo, had appeared on the rocks below and called out to her: ‘Marie, I am your Mother. I am the Virgin Immaculate’. She was instructed to tell the priests that the rock must become a place of pilgrimage, and now, by doing so, she hopes to avert further harm coming to Alex. She insists, however, that she does not herself believe that this was the Virgin Mary; it could have been ‘a trick or a hallucination’.

Certainly, then, Marie is an unreliable narrator  – although the novel is told in the third person, almost all of it is from her point of view. But what Brian Moore wants us to think or believe is unclear; he was born and educated as a Catholic, but was often critical of the Church and its doctrines. Here he is evidently leaving it up to the reader to decide whether Maries’s vision is genuine, whether the force that she believes is controlling her is a result of simple paranoia or a demonstration of the will of the God she firmly refuses to believe in, whether Alex’s accident is a direct punishment for her adultery (or, conversely, for her failure to tell Alex she is leaving him), and if not from God then from whom or what. Alex’s inexplicable physical symptoms suggest some kind of supernatural cause, but an explanation in never forthcoming.

If you are not a lover of ambiguity, this won’t be the novel for you. I am, and I found it fascinating and unputdownable. 

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Harriet is one of the founders and a co-editor of Shiny New Books.

Brian Moore, Cold Heaven (Turnpike Books, 2022). 978-1916254787, 230pp., paperback original.

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