Tracy Ryan, Sweet, Fremantle Press: 2008. RRP: $26.95
Tracy Ryan’s third novel, Sweet, is the story of three women caught in the thrall of a manipulative pastor of a conservative Baptist church in the outer-suburbs of Perth circa 1986. The Reverend William King is a complex figure, genuinely caring but always controlling.
Cody is seventeen and has just lost her brother in a car accident. In her grief the church offers her a degree of purpose and meaning. Yet she seems to fall into Christianity, rather than converting through conviction. Soon, William is pressuring her to give her testimony in front of the church, the story of her conversion from the darkness of ‘Romanism’. But this story he is trying to impose on her doesn’t ring true; her nominally Roman Catholic background is neutral in her memory.
Kylie is a young mother whose husband Mick is frequently away shearing. Her Baptist neighbours take an interest in her and babysit her children; soon she finds herself sucked into the church. Mick is unimpressed by her heavy involvement and she is torn between the church and him.
Carol has been a Christian much longer and her story is about the disintegration of her externally perfect Baptist family. As problems with her daughter and husband arise, she begins to realise that life isn’t as simple as her faith has taught her.
Capturing the milieu
As someone born into this context of conservative Baptists in the 1980s, I can say that the novel has captured the milieu very well. The church services centre on the sermon where the pastor might rail against Catholics or make an altar call. There are missionary slide nights, and prayer meetings, and discussions about theology or ethics which always sound like the blind leading the blind, pooled ignorance as someone pulls out one Bible verse and another a different one.
Early in the novel, there is a cringe-inducing wedding scene, with the ‘Christians all huddling away from the drinks table with the cardboard wine casks’ (61). Good hearted Carol marches a scandalised church lady across the divide to give the bride a hug amongst the drinkers.
The women attend a group called ‘More Than Rubies’, a reference to the book of Proverbs where a good wife is said to be more precious than rubies. Amongst the women, the stifling of erroneous thinking and behaviour is achieved through gossip disguised as Christly concern and pressure, both subtle and overt.
The novel captures the cliches and language of Baptists too – Cody reflects on them never saying ‘bad luck’ or ‘good luck’, because nothing happens by chance. Kylie is censured for calling a baby an ‘old soul’ – because reincarnation is not true. We read about MKs and PKs – missionaries’ kids and pastors’ kids – the backbone of Baptist churches and always enjoying an unspoken respectability that converts do not have.
As the system begins to unravel for Cody, William asks her:
‘There’s not some kind of problem is there? I mean, in your walk with God.’
Walk with God. William was falling back on all the cliches, countering her worldly jargon with his own. Cody hated that. She preferred it when he talked to her like an ordinary person, without the verbiage. All the church women were full of it, as if they drew from the same phrase book: ‘I have to ask you this because the Lord laid it on my heart…’ ‘The Lord told me that…’ (293-294)
Working as I do at what used to be the Baptist Theological College, the parts I liked reading the most were those set there as Cody is pushed by William into studying. As Cody grows in confidence, she challenges the blithe assumptions of some of the other students. She comes to this important insight into Baptists and their claim to read the Bible free of tradition:
Because they couldn’t see how their own traditions ‘gave’ them their way of reading Scripture. They thought they were so pure and free of ritual and tradition, but if you came in from the outside, it looked like nothing but. (262)
The novel’s depiction of ‘faith’ is a confronting one for evangelicals. The three women are a part of the church more out of loneliness than a strong conviction of the truth of the beliefs they take on board. ‘Faith’ in the novel is more a function of conformity to the system. The women want to be loved and accepted. They want the attention of the pastor and the approval of the other people in the system. There are a lot of people within evangelical churches for whom this will ring true.
For evangelicals, then, the novel offers a chance to see their faith explained in psychological and social terms. Of course, evangelicals will conclude that true faith is a response to the living God; but it is important to consider how the system gets in the way of God.
Sweet is a compelling novel. It kept me reading and thinking. The prose is smooth and unintrusive yet filled with flashes of beauty. The structure effectively balances and interweaves the stories of the three women connected by William King. It is at once an engrossing drama of broad interest and yet also an important portrait of the evangelical world, a world rarely depicted in literature.