The Religion by Tim Willocks

Tim Willocks’ The Religion, a sweeping epic romance set against the Turkish siege of Malta in 1565, a battle that determined the shapes of Christian Europe and the Islamic world for centuries to come, might be a candidate for best novel of the year — were it not, I regret to say, so very badly written.

Willocks creates characters with real depth and consistent psychological motivation in Mattias Tannhauser, a Teutonic soldier of fortune, and Carla La Penautier, the disgraced Maltese countess who contracts with him on the eve of the siege to find and rescue her lost bastard son. But they, and all around them, seem to be suffering from severe intestinal distress.

Or at least you’d get that idea from the relentlessly visceral manner with which Willocks describes their every passing emotion, from lust and love to fear and mortal terror to scheming ambition.

Upon hearing someone he cares about is in danger, “Tannhauser felt the floor falling out of his bowels.” When strains of Carla’s viola come to him across a battlefield, “His gut clenched tight.” At the moment of impact in a sea battle, “Tannhauser clung for his life as the prow rose before him and his bowels dropped inside him and all he could see was a flash of the star-speckled sky.”

Indeed, this novel gives the distinct impression that what the Mediterranean world most direly lacked at the time was a steady supply of Imodium or Pepto-Bismol, the presence of which might have dramatically altered history. I mean, could it be the Turks invaded Malta because they were, literally, dyspeptic?

But then Willocks is a writer for whom subtlety is no virtue and overstatement no vice. The idea that less is more — in his case, much, much more — has doubtless never occurred to him. Almost every emotion that he runs through some character’s alimentary canal would have been better conveyed to the grateful reader by understatement, if not silent implication.

I doubt such a strategy is available to Willocks, however. Repetition and overstatement are his stock in trade. His depiction of the awful bloody gore of combat by sword and lance, primitive cannon and flintlock rifles, is one of the glories of this book, but he cannot restrain himself from pounding the message home long after the reader has gotten it.

Similarly with Tannhauser’s virility. Sure, the hero of an epic saga might be expected to have more than the average run of sexual prowess, but no one could possibly be so perpetually potent during a time of grinding, exhausting combat, with too little food, too much wine and opium to relieve the pain of battle wounds, too much stress and anxiety and fear and blood loss. We get it! The man’s a stud! On with the story, for Pete’s sake!

An entire review might be devoted to the sport of mocking Willocks’ crimes against decent English prose, but, great fun though that might be, it would come at the expense of what the author does well. And the sum of what he does well, however pulpy it may be, adds up to a genuine entertainment that also manages to be thought-provoking.

Willocks, a practicing British psychiatrist who specializes in addiction treatment, is the author of three previous novels, all noir thrillers set in the American South. He’s also written several movies, most notably 1997’s Swept from the Sea, starring Ian McKellan and Rachel Weisz.

Years of prodigious research surely went into The Religion, for it bristles with authenticity and texture that brings the siege into sharp visual relief. For all his stylistic clumsiness, Willocks mounts an impressive narrative drive, and all the characters, no matter how minor, have a pleasing heft of personality.

Willocks is more than proficient at plotting, too, weaving numerous layers of political, military and romantic intrigue into the narrative, giving us not one but two inventive love triangles. The climactic confrontation between Tannhauser and the Inquisitor Ludovico, the secret father of Carla’s son, plays out in impressively unpredictable ways.

But what most distinguishes the strengths of this book is the clear-eyed sensibility Willocks brings to its vision of war, religion and human nature. Battle is hard, tedious labor where combatants sometimes have to take a breather before continuing to hack at each other, and the battlefield is a miasma of entrails, blood and human waste.

Yet Willocks’ men love it, and feel they find God in battlefield glory as nowhere else. Meanwhile the religious leaders on both sides are motivated more by pride, ambition and lust for glory than by devotion to God or Allah. To Willocks’ credit, Ludovico, the story’s chief villain, is motivated by genuine belief, not hypocrisy, while the cynical Tannhauser is not immune to the pull of war, even though, as he says, “Who cares now that Hannibal won at Cannae? A line will change on a map, or not.”

Despite it’s glaring flaws, The Religion has much to recommend it. Indeed, I haven’t had such a divided response to a novel since Nick Tosches’ over-the-top mash-up of Mob shenanigans and Dante scholarship, In the Hand of Dante (2002).

Meanwhile, I couldn’t help casting the movie in my head as I read, an experience I expect many readers will share. Russell Crowe, or perhaps Dominic West, for Tannhauser, Ralph Fiennes for Ludovico, Ray Winstone as Tannhauser’s rough-and-ready English friend Bors, Monica Bellucci as Carla, and Maribel Verdu as her sexy, mystical companion Amparo. Ridley Scott directing. I’d pay to see it.