As a child, I loved going to confession. I was decidedly stroppy about most aspects of my Roman Catholic upbringing; the mass bored me stiff, and the religious significance of the first Holy Communion and Confirmation ceremonies meant less to me than the fact that I got a new dress for one and a new name for the other.
But confession I liked. Perhaps it was the aesthetic of the thing – the ornate latticed screen, the incense, the sound of the priest’s gentle, disembodied voice. Maybe it was the feeling of special attention. Or the relief of getting something off my chest (lying and stealing mainly, since you ask). Or perhaps it was something altogether more primal, more interesting. Less a matter of choice, and more a matter of human nature.
I lapsed in my teens, disillusioned with the Church’s fingers-in-ears ranting about the social issues I was starting to find important – abortion, divorce, gay rights. Mostly this was a painless process, even a relief – like putting down a heavy bag I’d been carrying around for too long. But there was something I missed. The fact that I continued to grudgingly miss it, throughout my teens and twenties, was at the forefront of my mind when I wrote my first novel, Rites, this time last year.
Rites is set in the summer of 1997, in an Anglo-Irish Catholic community in Manchester. Four teenagers make a pact to lose their virginity, but their plans go horribly wrong. Fifteen years later, they and numerous other characters, tell the reader what they think happened that summer; their own version of the truth. The idea of confession is central to the plot and crucial to the narrative structure. No matter what their intentions when each character starts their narrative, they all end up confessing to some transgression or failure that still haunts them fifteen years down the line.
One of the first narrative voices that forced its way into my head and onto paper, that of the dry parish priest Father Creevey, insisting on the relevance of confession even to a secular society – or a society that likes to think it is secular. “Confession is a fantastically versatile thing, you know. It speaks to an ancient and inherent instinct which is also an extremely modern need. The need to tell all... To purge. To share," he says. "It is also free therapy.” Creevey, a character who seems to divide readers, believes that some things are bigger than the names we give them; that therapy, art, the cult of celebrity, even love itself, can all be seen (to commandeer the critic T.E.Hulme’s words) as ‘spilt religion’ .
Rachel Vincent, one of the four teenage protagonists and a passionate atheist, rejects the doctrines Creevey holds and warns the reader about the destructive power of his “twinkly-eyed schtick”. But, like everyone else in the novel, she can’t resist the lure of telling her story.
When the teenagers’ plans take a catastrophic turn, Rachel rejects the sanctuary of the confession box and initially places her confidence in secular authority instead, warning a friend, “[Confession]’s all bullshit. The people you need to be confessing to are down at the police station." But she later admits: “It wasn’t so different, you know, sitting there in that little bright room which smelt of coffee and disinfectant, to sitting in the little dark box I knew so well, that smelled of incense and guilt.” Both, Rachel decides ultimately, are trying to trip you up. Both strive to control your story for their own purposes. But, as she sets out to prove, neither is infallible. They can be manipulated, if you know the right way to play them.
One of the early ideas for the cover of Rites was that the title would stand against an ornate confessional grille of the kind that I remember from my childhood. The idea was that the reader would have to pass beyond the grille to access the confessing voices on the other side – that they would have to play priest, police officer and public to the troubled narrators.
But a screen has two sides to it. When the reader closes the book with an opinion about what happened and who was to blame on that summer night in 1997, I like to think that they’ve had to confess something too, about what kind of person they are. A staggering number of readers have told me that they couldn’t sleep after reading Rites; that they felt ‘compromised’, ‘tainted’, ‘personally involved’. I can’t think of a greater compliment.
Rites by Sophie Couloumbeau is published by Route.