Amanda Leduc’s debut novel, The Miracles of Ordinary Men, is a document of deep modern ambivalence. The space between total belief and complete rejection has collapsed into a blurred line, and the Bible is simply one book of stories among many used as life guides. God has been reported “dead in all the ways that matter” but for better or worse, God has ways of roaring back. Miracles asks: What is righteous and what is sinful, and does it even matter?
The novel traces the parallel narratives of Sam and Lilah. Sam, a “rock star” of a teacher, wakes up one day with wings. He is further transformed in the course of the novel, a torturous physical journey reminiscent of Cronenberg’s The Fly. He seeks the company of his childhood priest, Father Jim. Unfortunately for Sam, Jim cannot provide feel-good or decisive theological answers. Sam’s transformation changes Jim too, steeling his belief but shaking his faith; God isn’t what Jim had believed, but He is increasingly present.
(De)Lilah is the child of a former screechy feminist now reformed to Catholicism (Roberta is a mother who needs doctrine to function). Lilah has returned home, prodigal, from a low-rent world tour, having extravagantly wasted her gift of chastity. Unlike Sam, who wishes more than anything to go back to a quiet normal life, Lilah scorns her workaday world, and is excited that dating her boss may bring her more. What the date brings is brutality, written as sexual penance.
The Miracles of Ordinary Men posits that the modern version of a miracle as something wholly good is false. Further, the modern conception of suffering as voyage to personal fulfilment is also false. As the most sexually liberated woman in the novel, with the sassiest attitude, Lilah is the recipient of its harshest and most senseless violence.
Leduc conflates deliberate evil and domestic violence with kink by having Lilah’s lover Israel act as a skilled sexual sadist as well as textbook controlling and abusive boyfriend, and this is troubling territory. There are schools of thought that erroneously assume BDSM is synonymous with abuse, and Israel and Lilah’s relationship confirms those theories.
Given the almost heretical nature of most of the novel, it’s possible that Leduc is attempting to transgress some of our modern sacred tenants, but for the most part it feels like the sexual element is added as a reason for Lilah to return again and again to such brutality.
The Miracles of Ordinary Men is darkly ambitious yet accessible, and mutable, for each reader will come to different conclusions. As it pushes boundaries the novel is not precisely likeable, but it needn’t be. In her pre-Israel life, Lilah meets a man who is as right as anyone else in believing that God is found in an opium pipe. “Only idiots believe in happy endings,” he says.
Heather Cromarty is a reviewer and critic in Toronto.