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Celebrating needling humour


Kate Solly, Tuesday Evenings with the Copeton Craft Resistance, Affirm Press, 2023. 


Eighty years ago, Catholics sought the great Catholic Novel. Candidates such as Graeme Greene, Evelyn Waugh, JF Powers and Walter Percy were mentioned and often found wanting. The deeper question, of course, is what might count as a Catholic novel, and indeed whether a novel that was distinctively Catholic could be a great novel. At a time highlighted by Hitler, Stalin and war the specifically Catholic themes were often identified as sin and forgiveness focused on the tortured death of Christ. Graeme Green’s novel Brighton Rock was taken to invite the question whether the antihero Pinkie, who at the end of the novel jumps suicidally from a cliff, might have repented between the cliff top and the water. 

Kate Solly’s very enjoyable first novel, Tuesday Evenings with the Copeton Craft Resistance is certainly not the great Catholic Novel. Nor does it test the darkness of the human condition as a great novel does. Neither is the setting of its story particularly Catholic, and only one of its characters is recognisably Catholic. But it does have a recognisably though not exclusively Catholic view of life that poses interesting questions about the book. It is a comic novel both in the classic sense that all ends well and also in being very humorous. Its main characters all struggle to find their own identity in various ways. By coming together in a shared project, however, they grow as persons and are able to find themselves and make a difference to their town which faces an anti-Islamic campaign against a proposal to house a centre for refugees.

When we meet them all the characters of the novel are struggling: Claire the mother of five young children  struggles to survive the daily crises of life with her self-esteem intact: Yasmin, a young Muslim woman pregnant with her first child, has rapid changes of mood, suffers  from arachnophobia, and struggles to cope with the way people see in her only the religion and not the person; Meredith, a highly capable and intelligent manager, is driven to control her life and relationships, particularly those with men, with firm rules; Edith is a wise elderly woman. Her role is to be the grandmother of Luke, an impossibly competent and laid back young man who has just sold a very successful business and is looking for something more; Lotte is elusive; Harper, a sullen and tempestuous young woman who has served time in prison. She has been put into in contact with the group by Sister Pat, a nun and social worker who appears infrequently. She is the moral compass of the novel.

The group are drawn together by responding for different reasons to Meredith’s advertisement for the formation of a crocheting group. Meredith has detailed and inflexible plans for the shape of the group. They soon unravel as people turn up late, interrupt the preordained order, and begin to form friendships but also risk falling apart as a group. At the same time, however, a group hostile to Muslims hears of the plan for a refugee centre and becomes active in the area, putting black plastic spiders with anti-Muslim signage around the area, The group then comes together to try to resist this movement.

This outline of the book suggests rightly that it is primarily about women whose character emerges from the author’s account of their experience. The male characters, with the exception of Luke, have a minor role and are described briefly though with distinctive characteristics. The growth of the women through the group and their chosen project is at its centre of the novel. Their character emerges through the challenges of their ordinary life which are precisely and often hilariously described. The opening description of Claire’s shopping in a supermarket with four of her children all intent on mayhem culminating in mayhem at the check-out counter when she discovers that she has lost loss of her purse is richly comic. For a male reader it also brings home the physical as well as mental challenge of combining efficiency and parenting. Yasmine’s experience of the challenges posed by the changes of pregnancy and the ways in which Meredith’s desperate emphasis on efficiency to deal with her inner anxiety falls apart in the group are also described humorously yet compassionately. As she shares their experience with her readers the writer laughs with her characters but not at them. 

Both the energy of the book and its humour accelerate as the resistance to the anti-Muslim scheming takes shape. It suffices to say that the furious crocheting involved is both a catalyst for the personal growth of those who take part and the weapon that routs the forces of unrighteousness.


'The book’s plot does turn in a more domestic way on the conflict between good and evil, represented respectively by the generous desire to turn Catholic property over to refugees and the vicious desire to prevent the project by portraying refugees as Muslims and Muslims as sinister and alien.'


Whether this novel is a Catholic or Christian novel is irrelevant to its enjoyment. Readers from any cultural background will find it well-written, laugh aloud as they read it, and look forward to Kate Solly’s next novel. But for readers interested in its relationship to Christian or Catholic faith, it does not lie in its explicit reference to faith but the view of the world that it embodies. It celebrates the goodness of the world it represents and of the people in it. (Perhaps the leaders of the anti-Muslim group are an exception, but they are like the fallen angels fixed in their evil ways). It also sees the ordinary business of life as grace filled, accepts happily people’s faults and limitations as a matter for laughter and not for laceration, and is confident that goodness will win out.  That goodness naturally finds its expression in going out to others and forming communities, like the Crocheting group, which in turn shape people’s lives for the better. It is what a Church group could be.

Though it does not make central the tension between sin and forgiveness, or the mystery of salvation coming through a tortured execution that are central to Christian faith, the book’s plot does turn in a more domestic way on the conflict between good and evil, represented respectively by the generous desire to turn Catholic property over to refugees and the vicious desire to prevent the project by portraying refugees as Muslims and Muslims as sinister and alien. This key Christian vision of the need to choose between good and evil, love and hatred, is embodied in the symbolism of spiders which the anti-Muslim group deploys in its campaign. They place black spiders bearing anti-Muslim slogans and put them on fences, lamp posts and elsewhere, only to find that they are removed or their message amended in bright colours to express welcome. For Yasmin the spiders that trigger her phobia also serve to free her from it. Readers of Scripture may recall the snake in the desert that is the source both of death and of healing for the Israelites.

This structure does suggest a catholic or Christian sensibility in the construction of the world represented in the novel. It underlies its comedic vision. In a culture where that sensibility is not widely shared it prompts reflection on how the values represented in the book are commended through the book, whether homiletically in the language of sermon or embodied in the characters’ distinctive ways of speaking. The point at which the tension between private and public language becomes noticeable lies perhaps in the conversations in which the characters commend to one another a better vision of the world. In some of these places their language tends to the sermonic, a little out of character with their ordinary discourse. Such inconsistency, of course, is found in the ways most of us speak, living as we do in different worlds. 

Whatever of that, this is a book to be enjoyed on its own modest terms. It might even encourage a mass turn to crocheting.  




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Kate Solly, Book, Review



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Existing comments

I will look out for this book. I watch the television program Call the Midwife for the same reasons

geoff | 10 February 2023  

This is a very sane novel by a highly intelligent and insightful woman about bringing light into what could become a very dark place. It is also about community and how a shared hobby can help bring a real community together and it is light and easy to read. Bravo Kate!

Edward Fido | 14 February 2023  

What a heartening review! I have bought the novel. And, yes; 'it (certainly) is what a Church group could be'! Thanks.

Michael Furtado | 10 March 2023  

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