God’s Liar by Thom Satterlee
Slant Books, 2020; 176 pp.; $18.00
Review by Katy Carl
After such a strikingly brutal year, it feels only natural to be experiencing a thirst for perspective. Paradoxically, perspective can flower from the dirt that is the nightmare of history (whose demise has been much exaggerated). As this year’s litany of cancellations—due to ideology, epidemiology, or both—rolls on, readers may find echoes of the present day in this timely story. Through the eyes of fictional Anglican priest Theodore Wesson, Thom Satterlee details a richly imagined version of the time John Milton was nearly “cancelled” for opposing the English monarchy and then had to go into quarantine to avoid catching a potentially deadly illness (in 1665, that would have been bubonic plague). Milton’s flight to the countryside in search of refuge from the worst human society can deliver reveals that, from the worst the human heart can do, there may at times be nowhere to hide.
Satterlee’s achievement in God’s Liar is to dramatize the consequences of questions that, in themselves, are often reduced to abstract terms in philosophical theology. For Wesson, Milton, Toland, and the constellation of characters who surround and support their hiding places, these questions are live issues with concrete implications: can we fully believe and trust in God’s Providence, in the face of the sometimes devastating plot twists of each person’s life? If Providence somehow includes and accounts for all the ways nature and experience may harm us, all the ways we may bring harm to others through self-interest or thoughtlessness or mere lack of clear intention, all the ways we deceive ourselves and others both knowingly and not: what stringencies, what penances, must we then accept to limit the damage of which we are capable—and what mercies are still available to us?
For all its backdrop of monarchical intrigue, assassination attempts, intra-church politics, and Manzoni-reminiscent plague drama, Satterlee’s storytelling is at its best when it addresses itself to the interior worlds of characters responding to otherworldly realities. Broader context is rendered in brief glimpses rather than Balzacian disquisitions. Individual human motivation—love, shame, grief, ambition, fear, and the longing for transcendence—remains consistently in the foreground.
As a result, the novel wears its author’s learning with a praiseworthy lightness, a grace not always conspicuous in historical fictions. Facts about the political and religious landscape, as well as quotes from work by Milton and his real-life biographer Toland, blend seamlessly in, so that the reader learns effortlessly by immersion—a pleasure proper to good historical fiction, one that the liveliest nonfiction can at times strive in vain to offer. An impressive list for further reading sprawls through the acknowledgments, an authorly generosity both to researchers and to the curious.
The text is not free of occasional infelicity, mainly in the rendering of the sound of the seventeenth-century English that Milton so thoroughly commanded. In all fairness, to render imagined Miltonian English with perfection is a task to give vertigo to any talent. Where the effort succeeds, it delights; where it falls short, it distracts from another of the novel’s charms, the presentation of characters who seem less like visitors from the foreign country of the past and more like people you might bump elbows with at a parish potluck. Purists may find themselves wishing the implied translation of the past into modern idiom either a bit more or a bit less thorough; others may find the blend of deliberate archaisms and contemporary syntactical patterns just right; this may be a matter of personal taste.
In constructing his fictional argument, Satterlee plays with, even turns inside out for exploration, St. Augustine’s dictum that “God does not need my lie.” Satterlee makes Wesson into what James Wood in The Art of Fiction calls a “reliably unreliable” narrator, but in a twist on the tradition, a self-consciously unreliable one: Wesson believes he can knowingly practice dissimulation for the sake of deeper truth. This may tend to suggest an analogy to the act of fiction writing (insofar as a responsible fiction is, precisely, a complex “lie” or fabrication constructed, arguably, in such a way that it points to truths higher than itself). As the plot winds its way toward completion and the consequences of Wesson’s self-deception play themselves out, readers are invited to reflect on honesty’s insistent demands and the places where real refuge is alone to be found.
Katy Carl is the 2020 Wiseblood Books writer-in-residence and the editor in chief of Dappled Things magazine. Her nonfiction has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Evangelization & Culture, and St. Louis magazine, among others. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Wiseblood Books in 2021.