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Pickle Me This

April 5, 2009

Battered Soles by Paul Nicholas Mason

The protagonist of Paul Nicholas Mason’s novel Battered Soles is a man called Paul Mason who is surprised to hear of a famous religious pilgrimage taken from the city of Peterborough to St. John’s Anglican Church in Lakefield, a nearby village. “It didn’t seem likely to me. I did not then expect the miraculous to reveal itself in a turf that was to some degree familiar.”

But then miraculous revelation in familiar places is the jurisdiction of fiction in general, really, and Mason plays with this further by situating the familiar (which is himself, or someone like him) inside a story wholly imagined. Moreover, through such imagining, Mason has also managed to re-imagine Peterborough and Lakefield, rendering these seemingly ordinary locations (at least to those of us who’ve lived there) as places to be considered anew.

The fictional Paul Mason is familiar with Peterborough, because he’d attended university there at Trent in the 1970s. And he’s intrigued by the idea of the pilgrimage, being someone who has “long felt drawn to religious questions, even if [he’s] in short supply of doctrinal answers”. The story that follows is Mason’s account of his journey towards the blue-skinned Jesus sculpture in the basement of the St. John’s church. The sculpture was created by a lesbian artist called Daz, who used to follow the pilgrimage route to her lover’s home in Lakefield. After Daz is killed, struck down by a car on her bicycle, the church’s caretaker cleaning around the statue suddenly finds his arthritis cured. Word of the miracle gets around, and the pilgrims begin arriving from around the world.

As might be expected by a novel whose title is a pun, the humour throughout is a bit goofy, the wisdom folksy. I frequently laughed out loud as I read (it occurs to me to note: there is no other way to laugh, is there?) and enjoyed traveling alongside Mason and the colourful characters he meets. The story as much a meditation on faith as the pilgrimage is meant to be, Mason’s incidental asides providing Battered Soles with an additional great deal of charm. Faith itself meant in an ecumenical sense, as suggested by an Anglican pilgrimage towards any Jesus painted like a Hindi deity (with Baptists along the way). This becomes a story about people of all kinds. With no doctrinal answers, but indeed the questions open wide, underlining the very point: journey matters more than destination anyway.

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