Book Review: The Priest and the Lily

I came across Sanjida Kay when I reviewed her first psychological thriller, Bone by Bone. Following subsequent interviews and events I became aware that this was not her fiction debut, that she had already published a number of other works under the name Sanjida O’Connell. I purchased Angel Bird as it was set in Ireland and enjoyed the tale. When she contacted me to offer a review copy of The Priest and the Lily – a new edition of historical fiction originally published by John Murray – I was happy to take the book.

Set in 1865, just a few years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the protagonist of the story is Joseph, a young Jesuit priest. Although firm in his faith, Joseph has a keen interest in evolutionary biology. He works as a scientist at Bristol’s Royal Botanical Gardens, retaining links with the British Museum. For years he has been plotting and planning in hope of gaining funding for a foreign expedition. He has long dreamt of travelling to Outer Mongolia – an interest inspired by boyhood stories of Genghis Khan – and returning with specimens of previously uncategorised flowers, thereby gaining him the respect of revered members of the Royal Society.

From the prologue, readers will be aware that Joseph returned from a perilous journey across Mongolia with a rare lily that brought him the kudos he had so desired. The remaining story is of the expedition, with some backstory to explain why Joseph developed his faith and scientific bent.

The first chapter details his crossing of the border with China, necessary to reach the landlocked destination. It is a shocking opening – a depiction of cruelty that lays bare the attitudes of many men he will encounter. Although distressing to read it provides effective scene setting.

Mongolia harbours a nomadic people whose culture includes a welcome for strangers. Joseph travels with a Mongolian horseman, Tsem – who will manage the pack horses necessary to carry provisions and equipment – and a translator, Mendo, who is a Buddhist monk. The three men, although very different in outlook and ambition, will become friends.

As they travel across the remote mountains and plains, Joseph collects specimens of plants and creatures – killing as he feels necessary. He regards this as important for science. Others regard it as theft. Joseph’s arrogance is that of an Englishman abroad, comfortable in his right to be there. He is willing to learn the language and fit in with cultural miens but regards his work as valuable and worth the plundering of locale.

As well as staying in tents used as shelter by the indigenous population, the trio benefit from hospitality in Buddhist lamaseries. These are under increasing threat from a Warlord whose army proves brutal and pitiless.

Having long regarded Buddhists as peaceable, it was shocking to learn of some of their practices – towards young boys placed in their care and the creatures in their surroundings.

The dangers encountered on the journey – hunger, weather, terrain and vicious people – are not the only aspects that challenge Joseph’s equilibrium. Mendo causes him to ponder aspects of his beliefs.

Events conspire to place Joseph in the care of a small mountain community. Here he meets a beautiful woman, Namuunaa, who will test his vows of chastity. He prays to his god to be delivered from evil, but who in this story is evil?

Although the various dangers added to the sense of place, offering details on the manner in which the Mongolian population lived, the long journeying occasionally felt, well, long. Joseph’s admiration for Namuunaa focused on her beauty – I could have done without the detail of their sexual activities. She was remarkable in so many other ways.

I would emphasise though that the story told has lingered, particularly the imagery. The author is skilled at touching the senses – from her vivid descriptions of the filth of Bristol’s crowded and noisy dockside to the difficulties encountered traversing the Gobi desert. The reader can almost taste and smell each location alongside Joseph as he struggles to adapt and survive.

The story took me to a place I had never given much thought to and brought it to life, adding depth by exploring the attitudes of scientists and religions in a time of change. At its heart is a story of people whose lives have been shaped by their need to adapt to personal tragedy. A tale of choices made and the cost of ambition that proved an interesting and rewarding read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.