Review: Catholic author’s debut novel weaves religious complexities into dynamic narrative

“Ceremony of Innocence” by Dorothy Cummings McLean (Ignatius Press, 2013)

Reviewed by Anamaría Scaperlanda Biddick

Four out of Five Stars

Dorothy Cummings McLean’s debut novel, Ceremony of Innocence, is a fast-paced tale of intrigue and mystery set against social upheaval in modern-day Germany.  Riots—against immigrants as well as misunderstood papal comments, presumably the Regensburg address—take place alongside Islamic extremist terrorism.  Scottish journalist Catriona McClelland, German correspondent for an American Catholic news agency, is an onlooker to these events, traveling to the center of the action for her articles.  McClelland’s neutrality is questioned when she is personally confronted with the violence erupting amidst Western decadence.

The book opens with the death of Suzy Davis, an idealistic young Canadian studying in Germany, who was forcibly drowned on her way to meet Cat McClelland.   The reader is immediately gripped with questions of who killed the naïve North American student—and why.  The majority of the story is told in flashbacks, beginning with Cat first meeting Suzy in the bathroom of a German club.  It follows them through a neo-Nazi riot, hedonistic party with German celebrities and Suzy’s declaration of love for Cat’s German boyfriend, Dennis.  Optimistic Suzy queries jaded Cat about romantic love, true faith and religion, and politics at every chance she gets: surprise visits to Cat’s flat, hiding during an outbreak of violence against foreigners, and chance encounters.  Cat treats her with a mixture of distant affection and indifferent amusement.  While these short conversations reveal each woman’s outlook, the fast-paced novel does not linger on these scenes. Instead, it is quickly pulled forward by renewed action. 

McLean’s enthralling chronicle is rife with questions of innocence and guilt, which the author expertly brings to the surface without answering.  On a political level, complacent, materialistic Westerners stand indifferent to the war their country is waging in the Middle East while Islamic extremists bring the violence of that war back to Germany—killing both innocent Germans and Muslims living abroad.  Neo-Nazis erupt in aggressive protest to these acts of terrorism through brutality against peaceful foreigners.  Meanwhile, Suzy’s pacifist student group, Peace Now, protests foreign involvement in Middle Eastern war while silent in the face of domestic brutality. 

Though the novel parallels Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, it does not share Greene’s indictment of Western entanglement in Eastern wars; at most, McLean’s novel condemns terrorism and naïve participation in complicated meetings between the East and the West. 

The moral questions in McLean’s story become even more complicated on a personal level.  Cat McClelland, a Mass-going Catholic who works for the Church, faithfully abstains from communion due to domestic arrangements that place her outside the moral law.  Her faith is present amidst her own sin, but without the hope in goodness and love to which an undamaged, complete faith in Christ leads.  Her cynicism becomes more sympathetic as it is revealed that Cat was married to a faithful Catholic professor who left her for a student; his continued contact with Catriona revolves around the question of an annulment in order to sanction his once-illicit relationship.   

Cat’s past evokes sympathy, even for her sarcastic, distrustful attitude.  However, the question of her own innocence and guilt remains, especially with regard to her boyfriend, Dennis, who wants to legitimize their relationship through marriage.  Her personal moral responsibility in terms of the wider political situation is called into question as her professional journalism pulls her into greater knowledge of the people associated with acts of terrorism and violence.

The book’s ending does not disappoint, providing the reader with a series of twists that will prompt re-reading of earlier chapters and revising questions of moral culpability.  These same ethical complexities make the book appropriate for mature audiences only.

Fans of Graham Greene and the fictional works of G.K. Chesterton should be grateful there is a Catholic novelist writing today who is able to weave moral and religious complexities into the fabric of dynamic, suspenseful narrative.  The prose is tight without being sparse; the characters are realistic.  As in life, grace and sin are co-existent in the principal characters.  McLean’s novel is a must-read for those interested in the future of Catholic literature, as well as a thoroughly enjoyable story for anyone interested in good fiction, making it a great gift for any book-lover.

Anamaría Scaperlanda Biddick is a freelance writer and math tutor living in Oklahoma City.