An exclusive for you, dear readers – our book in focus The Devil’s Prayer by Luke Gracias is reviewed for us by author Sangeeta Mahapatra of Wreath and Other Stories.
What happens when you believe yourself to be forsaken by God and find yourself pitted against the Devil? When you are both the victim and the agent of terror and your one-shot act of atonement entails the greatest of sacrifices?
It is this dilemma of the damned that undergirds Luke Gracias’ stunning novel of revenge and redemption. While alluding to the age-old battle between the forces of good and evil, the writer does not take the easy way out by resorting to such a simplistic binary. The moral compass of his characters shift according to the situations in which they find themselves and this is what makes the book thrilling because you don’t know which way they will swing. At the same time, there is still some hope, some redeemable trait in them, which makes readers care enough for the characters to root for them.
A bit about the book first:
The Devil’s Prayer is divided into four parts, each seamlessly follows the other, carrying the story forward, with the writer finding the right balance between action and information (he elevates a horror story by peppering it with fascinating facts culled from Christian sacred texts, history, and his own cross-continental journey to the places described in the book).
The first part starts with a suicide. A nun from the ancient convent of Saint Therese near Zamora in Spain, with murderous monks hot on her trail, hangs herself from a church bell in full view of eighty thousand people attending a ritual parade of penitence during Semana Santa (Easter Week). Who is she? Why did she do this? The questions lead us to Australia, where we witness the private grief of a daughter dealing with the death of a mother she believed had abandoned her six years ago. Meet the protagonist, Siobhan Russo, a 23-year- old, who lives with her 17-year- old sister Jess and grandmother, Edith. The nun, we get to know, was Denise Russo, who had been a prominent newscaster before decamping to the convent. During the funeral wake of her mother, Siobhan is approached by a priest, Father Jakub, who hands her Denise’s Bible and in it, she finds a message and a key that compel her to take the first flight to Spain to visit her mother’s convent. As soon as she reaches Zamora, she is threatened by ruthless monks belonging to an order, tracing its provenance to the vicious Crusader, Arnaud Almaric. She manages to escape them. In the convent, she finds what her mother intended for her to read: Denise’s Confession.
We now progress to the second part of the book and from here on, it is Denise’s story all the way till the end and what a story it is! A young, naive single mother has everything going for her- a flourishing career, a caring boyfriend, and a loving family. Then something horrible happens that forces her to make a deal with the Devil. For me, this was the high point of horror: what can push a person to commit unspeakable acts of violence?
The horror is played out at multiple levels: the horror of being betrayed by those you love and trust; the horror of helplessness – seeing your well-ordered life crumble before you and being unable to do anything about it; and the horror of losing your basic humanity. While there is also the shock-value of lurid violence, this violence is not gratuitous. It is used to make the reader empathise with the victim, understand what broke her and sent her crashing into the zone of no-return.
The Devil, as the master manipulator, will create situations where you might be tempted to mortgage your soul but the choice is yours. This is the scary part. While several other stories have dealt with the theme of Faustian bargain, the writer breaks the trend by showing love to be the main motivation behind Denise’s desperate deal with the Devil and this is what makes her a relatable and redeemable character- even if she doesn’t think herself to be so.
While comparisons, as the old saw goes, are odious, I cannot help but make a comparison that redounds to the credit of the writer: the tone of the book and a few scenes from it reminded me of Richard Donner’s 1976 classic, The Omen. There’s a haunting sense of doom. The writer has put in a lot of research into the book. He has a gift for vividly visceral descriptions. This book can be made into a movie along the lines of The Omen and Angels & Demons (2009).
On a side note, what struck a chord with me was the concern over the impacts of climate change. It was nicely encoded into a religious text about doomsday. I liked the line where a key character adverts to the hubris of mankind where we think we can “kill the planet” with our actions. We can only end the survival system of our kind but the earth will continue to exist long after the humans are gone. Thus, the Devil will rule this earthly dominion because of the acts of man.
There is another thing that makes this book interesting – unlike the usual Kane and Abel riff, here the stage is set for a sister versus sister battle. I am excited to see where the writer will take us with this plot point.
The book ultimately ends with a mission for Siobhan – as to the what, why, and how of it, I would leave you, dear readers, to find out. It’s definitely worth finding out.
I would like to conclude with a few lines from the book that deeply resonate with the times we live in:
‘…the most heinous acts in the world, like those of the Papal Legate Almaric, are done in the name of God, and the most honourable acts, like those of Father Zachary, are committed in the name of the Devil.’
‘It’s a battle of faith. You call on God, not with your voice, but with your heart, with your soul. This is what they fear [the Devil and his minions]; not your voice, or your fists, but your faith.’
Author: Luke Gracias
Publisher: Australian e-book Publishers
Release: February 2016
Genre: Fiction / Thriller
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