Alchemy is the theme of this novel. The description of this mysterious and ancient art is an in depth one, at times confusing and often more than I cared to process. But the discussion provides a necessary background to the intrigue.
The story is caught up in the two lives of John Smith, a vicar who is the alchemist or the one attempting the process, and Eileen, the renter who finds his story years later. Harpur succeeds as he provides just enough information to keep the reader mesmerized.
Other strong features are the beauty of the language, the humor and the characters. I am reminded of the Victorian novels set in a small English village, as this is. Although a later era, the vicar, vicarage and congregation of the 1950s are reminiscent of an older time. The descriptions of the people, places and events are done leisurely with colorful expressions to pull the readers into the story and leave them wanting to relax and luxuriate there, surrounded by wonderful feelings. The subtle humor prevalent in the novel provides a reality thrust amongst the musings of the two characters and their quest for the alchemical “secret.” We care about the vicar and the later renter, Eileen. We get enmeshed in their progress, as their decisions become more clear and their lives unfold.
Ambiguity is the real story here, however. Alchemy’s history is provided, but what I most responded to was the entrance into a world where nothing is as it seems, where all is uncertain and unclear. The “marriage of heaven and earth” relates to the union of the above and below, as in the universal, “As above, so below.” Yet that union, reaching its peak in an alchemical change of base metals into gold is not clear either. As the author explains, the process involves the person performing the complicated ritual, a ritual that mirrors, and is affected by, the psychological state of that person. The secret of the process, which is the point of the story unfolding, is never quite revealed, of course, keeping with the idea of ambiguity. Yet one senses a peace coming to both the vicar, who described the steps he performs in the alchemical process, and Eileen, who reads the vicar’s papers.
Do we really believe there are black and white answers to our larger questions about life? Do we expect to unravel the “mystery of life” in a lifetime? Are human minds even capable of such a comprehension? There are no such revelations in this story, but one can allow a journey part-way to that mystery, a journey that must be accompanied by an ability to suspend beliefs enough to open to something new while accepting that any revelation will only confound the dilemma further.
Do we need to know specific answers we yearn and search for? We think so, yet I sensed a calm within after reading the novel that seemed to indicate it is okay to live with the continual not-knowing. As certain data is revealed, so much more remains hidden.
What is this marriage of heaven and earth? What is this union of the spiritual and material worlds? We can never know for certain, but successful and spiritual lives strive to acquire an ability to live with the ambiguity inherent in the above and below. Most seekers expect answers. I am reminded here that the journey is the search and not the solutions.