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A Severed Wasp: A Novel Paperback – November 1, 1983
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“I don't know another current American writer who could weave the worlds of music and the international concert stage, the claustrophobic life of a great cathedral close, and aspects of the often threatening street life of New York as Miss L'Engle does.” ―Edmund Fuller, The Wall Street Journal
“Hours of wonderful, suspenseful, provocative, soul-satisfying entertainment.” ―Norman Lear
About the Author
Madeleine L'Engle's many books include A Wrinkle in Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Certain Women. She lives in New York City, where she is writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
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But Vigneras, at least, is no Marple: she is as disciplined, reserved, and haunted by the past as Dalgliesh himself. She was imprisoned by the Germans during the occupation of Paris and her husband was sent to a concentration camp. L'Engle aims very high by making part of her story so extreme. But the present focus of the novel is a mystery unfolding around the grounds of the real-life Cathedral of St. John the Divine. After she is invited to perform a benefit at the Cathedral, Katherine discovers all kinds of dirty work afoot, including threats against herself and the ex-bishop and a possible murder attempt. Her unraveling of the mystery leads her to find out the dark secrets in the lives of everyone she encounters. Like Dalgliesh, she becomes a confessor figure. Though the novel is reticent about L'Engle's own Christian faith-Katherine is an agnostic and allowed to stay one, more or less-its true subject matter is the sacrament of confession.
Confessors hear a lot and yet, after a while, it inevitably begins to run together: at this point one burns out or one discerns certain patterns, by which human beings are able to make the best of things and pull themselves together again. L'Engle's deliberate choice in exposing us to so much pain in fairly short order is to put us in the position of the confessor who must insist on the patterns and the perspective, again and again, with broken soul after broken soul, while retaining equilibrium in his or her own life and staying in touch with his or her own pain. And most of the stories Vigneras hears are awful, the unbearable tragedy nearly everyone has in his or her life if they've lived long enough. L'Engle has been accused of smoothing over the rough edges of life; here she doesn't, and her brutality seems quite deliberate. Some of her consolations are still ill-advised; the story of Katherine and her husband in the war is itself so brutal that the quick turnarounds into the present, and Katherine's brisk, schoolmistressy advice to other suffering souls, can leave one sickish.
Though the novel has serious flaws and some hard to forgive, L'Engle manages to make us believe in the value of reconciliation even when it seems impossible. Some of the failures of taste may even be deliberate-the author wants us to feel what it is like to have to forgive the unforgivable. Katherine struggles with reconciliation in her own life, but at the story's end she is called on to forgive an unpleasant person who has done an unpleasant thing, as she has been called on to rescue the innocent victim. In the process, she receives an extraordinary grace in her own life, a moment of consolation for her own worst tragedy. This is all quite believable, though like the horror, it's the kind of thing one believes primarily because of experience, not because it sounds credible on paper. And though L'Engle's belief in a loving God shines through at the very end-a God who makes all right what humans cannot-it owes nothing this time to science-fictional or other fiats.
It's still clearly a book written almost thirty years ago; racism and homophobia, it's got. The frightened, mean, superstitious brand of Christianity practiced by the novel's villain exists, but the novel's messages would have been much more powerful had it been the penchant of a white Anglican, not a hysterical Latina. Nor is Katherine entirely believable as the mother figure she becomes to person after person-she's really rather a cold fish, and more entertaining when presented as one. And in the end one just wants more about the war than Katherine's dubious forgiveness of her Nazi jailer (and lover). But the book aims high and hits several of its many marks well. How wonderfully it could have been adapted for television by the same team as gave us serials of the Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, especially with a younger Claire Bloom as Katherine.