I first met Paula Harrold when she was a pink-haired Oxford theology student who decorated her bedroom wall with a large scythe. I never expected her to write a romantic comedy.
She has now done just that, but it’s not your typical romance. The will-they-won’t-they couple in question are Father Daniel O’Reilly, a dead Catholic priest, and one of his parishioners, Mildred, also dead. The action takes place mostly in heaven, with a brief trip to hell and a ghostly return to Earth. Mildred is searching for her lost love, Tom, and Daniel helps her, while developing an unexpected crush.
It’s an entertaining read, and the unusual premise breathes fresh life into a genre I don’t normally have much interest in. It also gives plenty of room for interesting speculation about the nature of religion and the afterlife, which is really well handled. Some of it’s purely humorous, and some of it’s really thought-provoking.
I particularly liked the way hell is handled – since Jesus washed away our sins, nobody can be sent there any more, but some choose to go anyway to atone for their misdeeds. I found the image of isolated men crying for centuries in an almost deserted hell to be quite powerful. There are also some great observations on the doctrinal differences between different religions/sects, and how none of them has the “right” answer but none are wrong either.
As I was reading the book, I actually thought it would work well as a play. Because it’s set largely in heaven, a lot of the scenes are in fairly blank, static locations that feel like empty stage sets. The plot also moves forward largely through dialogue rather than action, as Daniel and Mildred navigate their way through heaven and hell, being told by angels and demons how things work. This kind of explication sometimes felt long-winded in a novel, but I could see it working well on-stage, particularly because there’s plenty of humour.
The main thing I don’t like about romance is the predictability: once boy meets girl, it’s a matter of time before they get it on, and the two people involved have to be incredibly dense and/or romantically inept to avoid getting together too early. I tend to find the constant prolonging of the inevitable quite frustrating, and just want them to get on with it.
This wasn’t so much of a problem in this particular book, because of all the other stuff going on. It’s a romance at heart, but along the way you can also ponder the nature of heaven, or purgatory, or laugh at the concept of angels going on strike, or follow a sub-plot in which a demon who followed Lucifer into the pit of hell still pines for his love who stayed in heaven. Nevertheless, I did find myself frustrated sometimes and wanting them to get on with it, and I did predict the ending quite early on, much earlier than any of the characters, even those with divine powers.
In places the book could also have benefited from editing to make it tighter (even the characters often complain about conversations going on too long!), but overall I found this a fresh, humorous take on a tired genre, and the imaginative take on the afterlife made up for the sometimes slow-moving romantic elements.
Note: I believe there is no physical edition of this book – it’s only available on Kindle.