Book Review: This Side of Jordan, by Bill Kassel

Last July I was contacted by Company Publications to do a review of their recently-published novel This Side of Jordan, by Bill Kassel. The book arrived a few days later, and I dove into it. To make this brief, I didn’t like it. It turned me off. And I rather dreaded having to do the review, and I would rather praise something than do the opposite.

August brought with it the World Youth Day in Germany, September and October I was settling into a new home and starting in a totally new ministry, and soon thereafter I started to not feel well. Christmas, followed by my January retreat, meant that the delay in writing the review grew longer and longer. Finally, I decided to make a push to get it done, and I realised I would need to re-read the book. I decided to do so at a more leisurely pace this time, really trying to see if my initial impression had been correct. I was pleasantly surprised at what I found, and my initial negative reaction became quite a bit more nuanced.

The multiple themes of This Side of Jordan co-exist on different “layers”. For the sake of clarity I’m going to divide these layers into 3 parts: the Good, the Bad, and the Hmmm.

The Bad

The “surface layer” to the novel is the murder-mystery it contains. Two people are dead, a young actress and a young gay man who works in the theatre in production. The initial tension in the novel, then, is pretty simple: whodunit?

Unfortunately, the books falls quite flat in this regard. I was never more than mildly engaged in wondering who the murderer was, as the classic elements of a murder-mystery (such as the dropping of varied clues) were largely absent. Granted, some such clues were dropped…but they really only ever led to one person, and in a fairly linear way. The discovery of the murderer is really quite Deux ex machina, unfortunately, and to be honest, it was a character that one barely knew and honestly felt little sympathy for. There simply was no “a-ha!” moment that defines a good murder-mystery.

One thing the novel did have going for it, however, was a good set-up of the main characters themselves. I must admit, I enjoyed them for the most part, and in some cases I could just picture people whom I know who resembled character X or Y in a rather uncanny manner. I found, in particular, that the novel portrayed the clergy and religious in a realistic way — something rare for print today!

Which brings me to…

The Good

The second “layer” of the novel is, essentially, a catechesis on the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding homosexuality. On the level of Truth, the novel is first-rate: the position of the Catholic Church is accurately portrayed, down to the finest nuance. By using the fictional setting of a novel, the author uses the humanity of his characters to show all sides of the reality of homosexuality, both the precise nature of the teaching of the Church, and the practical realities of people living with same-sex attraction (whether their own, or in someone else). In other words, Kassel manages to humanize the presentation of an otherwise complex and touchy subject — including an acknowledgement of the feelings of alientation that can occur even if the teaching of the Catholic Church is presented with great affection.

I do have one caveat to add to this otherwise positive assessment, however: the moments where the doctrine of the Church is actually presented lack any real artistry. Kassel resorts to having has characters engage in long speeches in response to questions obviously designed to give his characters a chance to make long speeches. While reading these passages I felt like saying to myself, “OK, it’s time to listen, the teacher is speaking now”. I would rather have been “taught” in a more subtle manner — something harder to pull off, but which would have been a sign of a true artistry.

While brings me to my final point…

The Hmmm

The deepest layer, I came to realise, was on the level of a philosophical question about the relationship between Beauty and Truth itself. Initially, the story is about a small town trying to organize a theatre festival. They want a nice family production, that tells some of the history of the region. They engage a few theatre professionals to try and pull things together, but these professionals (one in particular) start to tinker with the story so that it slowly loses its historical credibility. Gradually some racier elements are added as well, and it starts to divide people, both internally and from one another. Of course, many townsfolk argue in favour of the continuation of the project, but it seems that the motives now are decidely mixed: the objectives of prosperity and glory seem to be overtaking the project, and many wonder if the festival is losing its soul.

These are good questions! What is Beauty, for example — is it merely “what people want”? What if people want something sinful — can Beauty and sin co-exist? And what is the connection between Beauty and Truth? There is a very interesting exchange between the young woman Sonia and her father Laszlo (who has no patience with his daughter’s involvement in theatre), in which Laszlo concedes “if a play can make people see truth…it is not completely wasting time…But it must speak truth.” I suspect that this is Kassel’s own view of his own novel.

Should you buy This Side of Jordan? If you are looking for a murder-mystery, you’ll be disappointed to discover that the mystery is really just a vehicle to move along a discussion of underlying doctrinal and philosophical themes. If, on the other hand, you are looking for an interesting and human take on the bigger questions of Truth, Beauty, and the truth and beauty of human sexuality (and one that is far less dry than a catechetical textbook), then this book is for you — or for someone you know who needs to read it.

This Side of Jordan can be purchased from both (USA) and (Canada).

UPDATE: Here’s something interesting! The author of the book contacted me shortly after I posted my review, and he shared a bit regarding his original intent in writing it. He took my criticisms in a very positive light, and I was very impressed with his professionalism — one of the signs of a mature artist is the ability to welcome precise criticism. I do hope he writes another book (this was his second), as we need more Catholics getting into the arts as part of the New Evangelisation.