Book Review: Begotten Not Made by Cónal Creedon

Begotten Not Made book review

Ever since the night Dana won the Eurovision Song Contest, Brother Scully and Sister Claire have signalled their love for each other by flashing their bedroom lights at dawn. One night of connection has been stretched across decades, all the things they never said compressed into the flick of a switch. For more than fifty years, that momentary flash of light has been the high point of Brother Scully’s day. But one Christmas Eve morning, Sister Claire’s light doesn’t appear. “Begotten Not Made” lets the reader sit with Brother Scully in his monastery bedroom, waiting for Sister Claire’s light and remembering a life forever changed by that fateful night in 1970.

You’ll like this book if:

  • You are or have been a Catholic. As you might expect from a book set in a monastery, God is mentioned a fair bit. Anyone who can tolerate a bit of playful blasphemy will get a kick out of the theological discussions between the characters. Catholicism is inescapable in this book, reminding us how interwoven it was into Irish society fifty years ago.
  • You enjoy a good conspiracy theory. Without spoiling things, Brother Scully creates a lot of trouble for himself with a very unique theory about who Jesus Christ’s father really was. It’s not quite the Da Vinci Code, but you’ll enjoying seeing how Brother Scully came to his unorthodox conclusion. However, like many passionate theorists, his speeches are too long for the average attention span.
  • You love love. There are two love stories in this book, one of which reduced me to tears in the middle of a crowded coffee shop. “Begotten Not Made’ asks what it means to love another person when you have already committed yourself to God. It’s touching and realistic; there are no fairy tale endings, and I could easily see these feelings existing in the real world.

You won’t like this book if:

  • You think Irish people take too long to tell stories. Some people find it charming, others alienating, but no-one can deny that the average Irish story has too many details. Too much background, too many tangents, and the occasional “What was I talking about? Oh yeah-“. You might politely sit through them at your neighbour’s house, but you’re less likely to continue reading them by choice. What made this writing style worse for me was the decision to not use chapter breaks. I think breaks would have made these fictional conversations more bearable, but the book is essentially one long stream of consciousness. While this format might more accurately represent the content, it tires out the reader.
  • You aren’t interested in religious content. To be fair, anyone who isn’t interested in religion probably wouldn’t pick up a book about a Christian brother anyway. Brother Scully is obsessed with poring over the Bible’s minute details, and discusses his findings at length throughout the book. I think you need to have a keen interest in religion (or at least its sociological impact) to enjoy this novel.

My verdict

“Begotten Not Made” is a well-crafted piece of writing, but it didn’t hold my attention consistently. Its long, uninterrupted passages made it difficult to know when it was safe to put the book down. Was I going to return mid-conversation and have to re-read the last few pages to get my bearings? The writing style felt authentic, but authentic to those long-winded conversations where you’re constantly waiting for the chance to say that it’s getting late and you need to go home. I really enjoyed the characters, major and minor, and was touched by the ups and downs in their lives. If you enjoying theological debate or a beautifully sad romance, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this book. But if you give it a go and find it isn’t your cup of tea, I wouldn’t suggest trying to power through. Just put it down and try something else.

★ ★ ★

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