I had downloaded Square Peg a while ago onto my Kindle, but suddenly turned to it as an antidote to the rather grim apocalyptic near-future NetGalley arc I’d just endured. I was so very glad I did…
“She’d seen faces like that before, but on the television, in films and in the history books. The faces of fanatics, cold and blind to all reason staring back at her.”
Chloe is a square peg in an increasingly uncomfortable round hole. Brought up by her wildly unconventional grandmother, she’s a true free spirit and has never learned to pull her punches. She’s just married trainee Church of England clergyman Clifford, and is living at the theological college and trying to figure out what’s going on around her. She’s had very little connection with formal religion, and has a talent for stepping on all sorts of emotional land-mines with the wives of the other ordinands. That would probably be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that her grandmother has inconsiderately died, and left her a house full of exotic souvenirs of her days as a travelling doctor, instructions to track down her father and sister, and what everyone else regards as a really bad attitude. She’s also lost her job, her temper, but not the will to live.
Chloe may come across as something of an airhead during the above extract of a rather chatty blurb, but in actual fact, she is mostly level-headed and extremely likeable. She is also in big trouble. Very recently bereaved, she is adrift. Her Gran, who brought her up, is the only family she has and while she is very happily married, it is a relatively new relationship. Moreover, her husband has recently started a course at a theological college training to be a Church of England vicar. And then, she is made redundant.
Like many people in great emotional pain, Chloe has become a tad short-fused and succeeds in mortally offending one of the wives of the ordinands at a supper designed to welcome the new intake and their wives. And what should be a relatively minor clash, quickly forgiven and forgotten in a Christian society, becomes the poisonous bedrock upon which a whispering campaign against Chloe is formed.
I’ve always been aware that Tuffnell possesses a keen intelligence and understanding of human nature – it sings out of her writing on her blog, Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking. It is what prompted me to buy her books in the first place. But this challenging read about prejudice and how it can get a grip, is a masterly study in how we human beings function – and how it can go so badly wrong. However, let me start by reassuring you. If you enjoy reading a smoothly well-written account of a very likeable protagonist in her daily life, then dive right in. Tuffnell’s technically accomplished writing style won’t plunge you into scenes of over-wrought misery. She depicts an independent young woman who has suffered a grievous loss, but carries on anyway – because everyone around her expects her to. Indeed, she expects that she should.
And despite the fact she is dealing with a serious subject, there is plenty of humour. Many of the scenes that lead up to the shocking climax verge on the farcical and certainly had me grinning. What added to my pleasure was that another of Tuffnell’s protagonists, Isabel from Away With the Fairies – see my review here – makes a sudden appearance. The narrative arc is beautifully handled, as is the fallout. There are no over-dramatic flourishes, which could so easily have tipped this book into melodrama.
Tuffnell tried to get her work traditionally published and after a number of near misses, gave up and now self publishes her writing. Thank goodness for that option – it would be a crying shame if books of this calibre didn’t see the light of day.