After Philip Larkin nominated Barbara Pym in 1977 for a Times Literary Supplement feature on underrated writers (citing her “unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of everyday life”), Pym emerged from the literary wilderness to reissued novels and a Booker Prize feting. There was public appetite after all for her quiet, funny books about ordinary people, often set within a church community.
And so too will there be appetite for K.D. Miller’s All Saints, a remarkable collection of stories linked by their connection to its titular Anglican church. Like Pym, Miller deftly captures life’s small poignancies and comedies, although her stories have an edge and are set during in the present when the church seems obsolete.
All Saints reads like a collision between Pym and Lynn Coady’s recent Hellgoing, whose epigraph is from Larkin’s “Church Going,” a poem which asks the question, “When churches will fall completely out of use/What we shall turn them into.”
The easy answer is condos – their developers are the only ones still banging on All Saints’s door. As with those in Coady’s collection, Miller’s characters are negotiating existence in a world in which the old rules and morality Pym satirized no longer apply.
The church’s obsolescence is allegoric for Miller’s characters, in their later years, reflecting on life’s encroaching limits and the possibility of hollowness at its core.
They are a Pymmish cast, including Simon, the priest, rattled by his wife’s death. He finds stirrings of love with Kelly, editor of the All Saints newsletter, drawn to the church because “it’s never going to dump me.” Emily, who conducts writing classes in the basement, is derailed by a stroke that leaves her with an awareness of a higher power in the form of an imaginary horse. Julia, for whom church rituals give framework to her days, stumbles upon a lurid sex act in a ravine. Partaking in that act is Cathy, the object of timid Owen’s affections.
And Alice Vipond, former teacher and unrepentant murderess who killed her Grade 2 class with poisoned lemonade, embarks upon an unsettling correspondence with Simon from the institution where she is finishing her days.
Most of them are searching for meaning; Miller – in language that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but bends to suit her purposes – uses the small moments in life to illuminate big questions. Where did the story start? What is destiny? Is there an order to the universe, to a life?
But a life, we learn, is only a piece of the puzzle, meaning and wholeness only emerging when separate lives connect. Crucially and compellingly, such connections are mysterious – Miller shows how we are all figments of one and other’s imaginations.
Figments or not though, these connections work miracles, as demonstrated in real life by Larkin’s resurrection of Pym’s literary career. All Saints concludes on a similarly hopeful note, countering the inevitability of condos.
It’s an absorbing, amusing and deeply meaningful read that affirms the power of sacred spaces – and excellent books – even in the modern world.