In her debut novel “Ceremony of Innocence” (Ignatius Press, $19.95), Dorothy Cummings McLean presents a thriller set in a modern-day Germany rife with hedonistic parties, Islamic-extremist violence and riots. The protagonist, Scottish-raised journalist Catriona McClelland, finds herself in the thick of the action, observing firsthand the mayhem caused by anarchists rioting outside a church and an anti-foreigner, neo-Nazi tirade after a Islamic-extremist bombing in Dresden.
The story opens with the death of Suzy Davis, an idealistic young Canadian student who was forcibly drowned. Much of the novel is told in flashbacks, from Catriona’s first meeting with Suzy and other chance encounters to Suzy’s declaration of love for Catriona’s much younger German boyfriend, Dennis. All the while, the questions of who killed naive Suzy — and why — lurks in the background. The fast-paced novel will keep readers staying up past bedtime and leave them pondering questions of guilt, innocence and sin.
Our Sunday Visitor: The book takes place in Germany amidst social upheaval. What aspect of the story came first?
Dorothy Cummings McLean: What came first was studying in Germany as a Ph.D. student. What made me think a lot about issues of terrorism was when I went to visit the Cologne cathedral. I took the train there, saw the cathedral and took the train back to Frankfurt. Two days later, bombs were discovered on the train from Cologne to Frankfurt. Two foreign students of Islamic extraction — engineering students — had put the bombs on the train. I couldn’t help but think what would have happened if the bombs had gone off.
OSV: The story parallels Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” yet the political question related to the East and the West are completely different in the two novels. How do you see this?
McLean: Ah, “The Quiet American.” “The Quiet American” is the best thriller I’ve ever read. The big issue: Graham Greene was an anti-colonialist. He was part of a generation where the British Empire was over, the American Empire was beginning. I think he felt that the British knew all about imperialism and were sick of it, and the Americans weren’t going to learn from their example. This is no longer our issue. I think the issues of our generation are Western self-hatred, loss of American self-confidence and Islamist-based terrorism.
OSV: Catriona is like so many protagonists in Catholic literature who believe in the Church but openly live outside the moral law. Why do you think these type of protagonists are so compelling?
McLean: Yes, what is our perennial fascination? When you write a novel, you need tension. The biggest tension for Roman Catholics since 1900 has been being a faithful Roman Catholic and sexual expectation. Since our Church is the largest Western church that still maintains that marriage is permanent, and that extramarital sex is a serious sin that contradicts this idea of marriage, then this puts Catholics on a collision course with contemporary sexual mores. The thing about Catriona is that, although she’s a sinner, she knows she’s a sinner. She, unlike so many, doesn’t receive Communion when she’s living with a guy she’s not married to. The thing I wanted to get across is that Catriona is a devoted Catholic who is nevertheless a sinner. In some ways she’s intensely moral, but it’s hard to see that because she’s a woman living outside the Church’s teaching on sexuality. For some readers, this is much more shocking than if she had been a male character. Having a religious heroine who is a sexual sinner is a bit of a head scratcher.
OSV: Catriona’s relationship with the much younger and extremely handsome Dennis is a prominent feature of the novel. What do you think about their relationship?
McLean: Catriona always acts like that it’s some kind of miracle that Dennis picked her, when it’s actually very simple. Dennis just saw Catriona, and she was his type. He just thought: “Great, that’s a sexy woman. She’s a foreigner, she seems smart, I’m going to go talk to her and drag her to a club.” It’s also partly cultural. In Anglo-Saxon culture there is a wider divide between people of different ages than there is on the Continent. So Dennis’ attitude as a young German is, “Why wouldn’t I have a relationship with an older woman, why not?” Whereas I think the average American undergrad would think that very strange, and so would the average Scottish woman.
OSV: These are two very different attitudes toward age. What do you think about the walls between age groups that exist in some cultures?
McLean: One of the themes of the novel is adults exploiting idealistic young. I think that’s much more likely to happen where there are walls between the age groups than where there aren’t. It is wrong for adults to target the young for any reason, because they are sexually naive, and because they don’t count the costs themselves. The people in caves in the Middle East who say to young men, “Go blow people up,” while they are safe.
OSV: The scene in which Suzy declares her love for Dennis is embarrassing in how forward and matter-of-fact she is. Do you think it’s realistic?
McLean: Again, there is a similar theme in “The Quiet American,” but in this situation it’s a woman behaving this way, which makes it even more excruciating. Yes, she’s an activist. She would do that. She’s all about feelings, she’s all about seize the day, put yourself in the front lines, be true to yourself.
OSV: One of the themes of your novel is the faithful Catholic who is, nevertheless, a sinner — yet this had a very negative impact on young Suzy.
McLean: Suzy early on becomes disillusioned with Catholicism, with adults like Catriona. Her parents are nominal Catholics, so Suzy is inoculated against Catholicism. There is a price to be paid when Catholics who claim to be Catholic do not behave as Catholics. It’s tragic. The best you can do is make sure your sins aren’t public. It’s sin, what are we supposed to? And that is the kind of thing that drives novels. Novels are products of fallen human beings in a fallen world. I just thought of this today: The first Christian storyteller was Our Lord himself.
When Our Lord wanted us to understand things about God, he told stories about a king or a father or a woman who loses a coin or a shepherd who loses his sheep.
Our Lord was the first Catholic novelist, in a way.
Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick writes from Oklahoma.