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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Havoc, In Its Third Year

Ronan Bennett

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To purchase Havoc, In Its Third Year

Title: Havoc, In Its Third Year
Author: Ronan Bennett
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 246 pages
Availability: Havoc, In Its Third Year - US
Havoc, In Its Third Year - UK
Havoc, In Its Third Year - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a good read, if a bit too predictable and simple

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 15/9/2004 David Robson
The Guardian . 4/9/2004 Kathryn Hughes
The Independent A 3/8/2004 Stevie Davies
London Rev. of Books . 21/10/2004 Colin Burrows
The Observer . 5/9/2004 Paul Taylor
San Francisco Chronicle . 28/9/2004 David Kipen
The Spectator A+ 2/10/2004 Ian Thomson
Sunday Telegraph . 12/9/2004 Benjamin Markovits
TLS . 1/10/2004 Michael Caines
The Washington Post . 10/9/2004 Carolyn See

  Review Consensus:

  Fairly, but generally not entirely impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "(F)ertile territory for fiction and Ronan Bennett seizes his chance with both hands. His novel reminded me powerfully of The Crucible" - David Robson, Daily Telegraph

  • "If there is a central focus in Havoc, it is not so much on Brigge as on all those bodies it is his job to prod and palp and read and judge. Under his clear gaze battered corpses are made to point to their murderers, while women's sexual places give up their secret stories. Yet despite all the opportunities for revelling in pus and shit, Bennett is careful to discipline his account so that the stinking gums, torn flesh and vomit dribbles are tempered by gentler sights and sounds." - Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian

  • "The New World Order in Ronan Bennett's searingly powerful dystopian novel is not the Bush-Blair millennium (or is it ?) (.....) The fantasy aspects of the novel are more than compensated for, though, by the fable's imaginative and moral force." - Stevie Davies, The Independent

  • "It has moments of real and zealous beauty, even if there are also in it quite a few of the things that you have to bite your lip over and bear when reading a historical novel. (...) It's a novel, then, that is trying to be both visionary and typological" - Colin Burrows, London Review of Books

  • "Bennett is a writer of deep political conviction, but his fiction is never merely a vehicle for ideas. Like his last novel, The Catastrophist, set during the Congolese struggle for independence, Havoc is an accomplished and ambitious work of fiction, regardless of allegorical subtext. This is what the best literature strives towards; wrestling with universal themes without falling into didacticism. Havoc is Bennett's best novel to date, and deserves a significant place in the modern canon." - Paul Taylor, The Observer

  • "Bennett's prose sounds strange but not foreign, a liturgical Anglo-Saxon machine of wood and iron, its tread something measured and grand. If only Bennett's plotting didn't occasionally recall a different sort of machine, the kind with sprockets. Too much of the novel is taken up with delaying tactics familiar from three-act script construction." - David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "I cannot recall any other living writer who has so convincingly and horrifyingly described the mental atmosphere of fanaticism. Like Greene before him, Bennett re-creates a period of ferocious human intolerance; at the same time Havoc is a plea for the virtues of mercy and compassion. There isnít a bogus sentence in the book, as Ronan Bennett writes with an invigorating plainness and, at times, a poetry that consciously evokes the King James Bible. Havoc ought to be read by all who are blindly subservient to ideology, left or right, religious or secular." - Ian Thomson, The Spectator

  • "Bennett is a deft and powerful storyteller. His characters announce themselves clearly but without too much shouting. And he manages to make their small worries matter as much as their larger fears. (...) Yet the novel just falls short of its promise. The plot takes on a hectic colour, and the bones of the allegory begin to show." - Benjamin Markovits, Sunday Telegraph

  • "In Ronan Bennett's engrossing and cooly lyrical new novel, true heroism lies in a reluctance to participate in fundamentalist blood-letting rites." - Michael Cines, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Bennett is a novelist as well as a moralist, so he shapes his tale as a grisly murder mystery, while doing his learned best to imagine what it must have been like to live in that faraway place, during those very hard times." - Carolyn See, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Havoc, In Its Third Year is set in north England in the 1630s -- troubled times, as Bennett points out in a brief introductory Author's Note. John Brigge -- "of the old faith" (i.e. a Catholic) -- literally lives outside the community, his poor estate a bit away from town, but he is nevertheless an important person, a governor and also the local coroner. It is in this latter capacity that he leads the inquisitions required to determine the cause of every sudden or unnatural death in this area.
       Called to an inquisition when the story opens, it's one that touches close to home: it concerns the death of a new-born, apparently smothered by its mother, an Irishwoman passing through named Katherine Shay, and in order to go conduct the inquisition Brigge must leave his own wife, Elizabeth, who is about to give birth to their first child. Things don't go well from the start: Brigge is impertinently questioned by the town watch when he comes to the gates, and then an important witness in the case at hand -- the girl who discovered the dead baby -- is missing. Shay doesn't do much to win the sympathy of the coroner and the jurors, but there's clearly more to what happened than Brigge can determine from the testimony he hears, and so he doesn't call for an immediate verdict. It takes quite a while to work out the truth (though it's fairly obvious, at least to the reader, from early on), and it might have served Brigge better to be more determined to seek it out quickly, but it makes for some drama and tension (will he discover the truth -- and be able to prove it -- in time ?).
       Meanwhile, Brigge has other things on his mind. His wife and the child they're expecting, for one. But also the ugly turn that local politics have taken. Punishments for any and all sins are growing harsher, the authorities cracking down ever harder, as if setting this example could better the difficult situation everyone finds themselves in (bad harvests, civil unrest, and more making for unsettled and unpleasant conditions). Brigge -- already of the suspect papish faith -- knows he's possibly vulnerable as well; he's been weak in the flesh as well, enjoying some romps with his wife's ward, the girl Dorcas. The fact that the boy he's taken under his wing, Adam, is desperately in love with Dorcas, and suspects that Brigge and her have been up to no good, doesn't help -- especially as Adam is of the conscientious, letter-of-the-law abiding sort.
       Nathaniel Challoner had organised the take-over of the government of the town a few years earlier, convincing a disparate group of influential men, including Brigge, to support him as he denounced then-leader Lord Savile as a "corrupt monopolist and rack-renter". Challoner was convincing: "There was something for everyone in what he promised." He became Master, and for a while things seemed to be better, but now things are going downhill. All opposition is crushed, and several governors charged and imprisoned. As one of the other endangered governors tells Brigge, the town is being turned into "a citadel of hypocrisy, which they call righteousness." Brigge is warned that his turn will come too. He's careful (avoiding town when summoned) but can't quite believe that his friends could really be going down this wrong path with such determination.
       Brigge remains an outsider: he is not purely antagonistic to the landless vagrants in the neighbourhood, and even takes two into his employ. He christens his child, allowing the officially wanted priest to enter his home. But all the while he does not cut off his ties with the town entirely, though one by one they come loose. Adam succeeds him as coroner -- and the boy's righteousness is obviously a danger to Brigge.
       The situation becomes untenable, and culminates in true havoc, as the old and the new leaders unite to consolidate their power (the worst of both worlds), while the disenfranchised finally rise up.
       It's dramatic stuff, all of it, and much of what Bennett recounts is gripping. There's considerable suspense: the town is always at close to a boil -- nicely contrasted with Brigge's peaceful rural estate away from the urban hell -- and the power-plays and personal betrayals certainly make for a compelling story. But the book has one great weakness: it's all too obvious. Bennett has written a programmatic novel, and he is too blunt with his message. There is nary an unexpected turn in the book: the mystery of the infant-death, Adam turning on his benefactor, the actions of the landless outside the town gates, the violence of those in power -- everything is terribly predictable. Brigge even often has very telling, religiously haunted dreams: Bennett seems unable to do anything subtly.
       Bennett tells a good story, and tells it fairly well (at least bit for bit). Taken as a whole the picture is a bit too garish -- everything is stated so obviously, everything is shown so obviously -- but he's good enough of a writer, with good enough of a story, that one can put up with it.

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Havoc, In Its Third Year: Reviews: Ronan Bennett: Other books by Ronan Bennett under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Irish literature
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       (Northern) Irish author Ronan Bennett was born in 1956. Incarcerated for political activities in his youth he went on to study History at King's College. He has written several screenplays and novels and a prize-winning memoir. He currently lives in London.

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