Set in 7th century England, The Oblate’s Confession tells the story of Winwaed, a boy who – in a practice common at the time – is donated by his father to a local monastery. In a countryside wracked by plague and war, the child comes to serve as a regular messenger between the monastery and a hermit living on a nearby mountain. Missing his father, he finds a surrogate in the hermit, an old man who teaches him woodcraft, the practice of contemplative prayer, and, ultimately, the true meaning of fatherhood. When the boy’s natural father visits the monastery and asks him to pray for the death of his enemy – an enemy who turns out to be the child’s monastic superior – the boy’s life is thrown into turmoil. It is the struggle Winwaed undergoes to answer the questions – Who is my father? Whom am I to obey? – that animates, and finally necessitates, The Oblate’s Confession.
While entirely a work of fiction, the novel’s background is historically accurate: all the kings and queens named really lived, all the political divisions and rivalries actually existed, and each of the plagues that visit the author’s imagined monastery did in fact ravage that long-ago world. In the midst of a tale that touches the human in all of us, readers will find themselves treated to a history of the “Dark Ages” unlike anything available today outside of textbooks and original source material.
Who knew that the 7th century could be so interesting? And not just trying to figure out how to pronounce those names - you know the ones ... with so many consonants it is difficult to determine where the syllabic divisions lie.
In all seriousness, The Oblate's Confession is a veritable feast of a book. It is a meaty tome: rich, delicious and satisfying. We get the day to day struggles of a boy who is pulled from his family and sent to live with strangers. There is intrigue when, years later, the boys biological father re-enters his life (for one afternoon), asking him to pray for the downfall of the Bishop (one of the boy's spiritual 'father' figures) a man with much wealth, political power and social station.
Questions of faith permeate this book, most obviously for those who profess Christianity, but in general, also for those of any, or arguably, spiritual tradition. What is right; what is wrong? What is the nature of good vs. evil? How is a faith that permeates one's practice and being different from one that is shown in public only?
If there was any glitch, it was in the story of the pre-monastic boyhood of the Hermit - I'm just not sure how that worked into the story at that point, rather than during the course of the recounting of Winwaed's experience as the hermit's liaison. It's not as if I skimmed my initial reading of Mr. Peak's debut novel, but I get the feeling that the link is there, and the failure to find it is mine. Perhaps the explanation is waiting, hidden from me at first, much like the removal of the big rock from the field took both Dagan and Winwaed, improvised tools and several attempts.
I already know that I will be re-reading The Oblate's Confession in the not-too-distant future. It is a book of a nature to have hidden gems of understanding that will only be revealed on successive readings and contemplation.
If once-and-done books are your usual fare (and there is nothing wrong with that), this book is a wonderful and entertaining introduction to a different level of book 'seriousness'. You will be challenged - and you will enjoy every blessed minute of it.
William Peak spent ten years researching and writing The Oblate’s Confession, his debut novel. Based upon the work of one of the great (if less well known) figures of Western European history, the Venerable Bede, Peak’s book is meant to reawaken an interest in that lost and mysterious period of time sometimes called “The Dark Ages.”
Peak received his baccalaureate degree from Washington & Lee University and his master’s from the creative writing program at Hollins University. He works for the Talbot County Free Library on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Thanks to the column he writes for The Star Democrat about life at the library (archived at http://www.tcfl.org/peak/), Peak is regularly greeted on the streets of Easton: “Hey, library guy!” In his free time he likes to fish and bird and write long love letters to his wife Melissa.
For more information please visit William Peak’s website.
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(Disclosure: I received a print copy of The Oblate's Confession from the author and publisher via Historical Fiction Virtual Blog Tours.)