Absolute Truths is
the conclusion of Susan Howatch’s series about the Church of
England in the middle of the 20th century. All six novels revolve
around the same Anglican clergy and the fictional diocese of Starbridge
(modeled on Salisbury), but each book is self-contained.
Charles Ashworth is the protagonist for the second time in Absolute Truths; Howatch began the series featuring him as a young priest and academic. In Absolute Truths Ashworth is now in his 60s and bishop of Starbridge. A stickler for tradition, Ashworth is known as “anti-sex Ashworth” by his disparagers in the sexually liberated ’60s, but he strays sexually after the unexpected death of his wife. Along with the loss of self-control, other crises confront him as he mourns: one of his sons is antagonistic; the other is losing what little self-regard he had; and a religious rival under Ashworth’s watch may be engaging in criminal behavior. Helped by his spiritual counselor and by insights from late wife’s journal, Ashworth comes to better self-awareness and compassion and is able to mend relationships and to resolve his own issues.
Howatch is an intellectual writer but is not difficult to read. Her distinctness is putting the struggles of her characters in the context of their religious beliefs. That may lessen the appeal of the Church of England series with some and increase the appeal with those who welcome seeing religion as still relevant in a changing world.
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