Claire Musters speaks to debut novelist and committed Christian Deborah Jenkins, whose book Braver is being published by mainstream publisher Fairlight Books.
Braver tackles some really serious issues such as mental health, loss, safeguarding, loneliness and bullying, yet manages to be a heartwarming celebration of the strength of community.
Each character goes on their own unique journey towards becoming braver, supported by the friendship they find through their local church.
I asked Deborah about the themes and characters within her novel.
One of your main characters, Hazel, has OCD and anxiety. How important was it for you to portray a character who deals with mental health issues every day?
I know people with anxiety and/or OCD and have seen first-hand the stress of living with them. Sadly, anxiety is an increasing feature of modern life and I think we need to make more adjustments to help people cope with it. I love the way my local Tesco has a twice-weekly quiet hour where noise is forbidden and lights are lowered, to help those with hidden disabilities such as anxiety.
Virginia is the local vicar who befriends Hazel. She has herself suffered huge loss, and has become the person everyone in the community turns to. Her desire to help others is driven, in part, by her tragic past. Is that why you wrote in an accusation which threatened to unravel her life?
No, not really. We all have baggage from the past and it's not uncommon to come to terms with suffering by using it as a springboard to help others. 2 Corinthians 1:4 tells us this is as it should be. But ministers are ordinary human beings who will make mistakes and errors of judgement. Sometimes it's good to be reminded of this.
While the community aspect of the church is portrayed brilliantly, there isn't much sense of the difference an active belief in Jesus makes to any character. Was this a necessity in order to be published by a mainstream publisher, or something you chose in order to make the book accessible to those without a faith?
That's an interesting question. I think active belief does make a difference to the lives of the characters. It shows itself through the sacrificial use of time to run community events and support the vulnerable. There is mention of hope beyond the grave and a calling out to God in prayer. We are told how one character found faith, which changed his life.
I would say that faith, in this story, is of the 'show, don't tell' variety. While there is no verbal discussion about faith, I am bold enough to believe that Jesus tiptoes between the pages of my book, through the care and compassion of those who love him.
I wanted to make the book accessible to everyone, hence my desire for a mainstream publisher. My intention was not to write a book with a gospel message in its narrowest sense but in a broad and generous one. I wanted to write about the power of community to change lives, and to show how the local church can be a great place to find it.
If we want to change the cultural view of church as an outdated and irrelevant institution, we have to find ways to show the positives. Some pre-publication reviews have praised the way in which Christianity has been presented 'in a positive light without being preachy'. This has made me very happy.
There is a wonderful sense of friendship across the generations within the book, despite each character having their own flaws and complicated backgrounds. What message did you want to convey about the community they find themselves a part of?
Friendship is a curious and beautiful thing. It is not dependent on age, ability or circumstances. It can thrive in despair. It evolves. The world is made up of flawed and complicated individuals and the church is no different. It's full of people who recognise their need of God and each other for strength to navigate life's ups and downs, offering a welcome to all who seek the same.
You touch on the subject of safeguarding. With many church abuse scandals coming to light in recent years, why did you choose to include this sensitive subject?
Sadly, the horrifying stories of abuse that we hear about, as you say, far too often, make it an absolute necessity in all walks of life. Failure to adhere solidly to safeguarding procedures puts everyone at risk, including those with good intentions. I hope my book reinforces this message.
One of the characters is a teenage boy with a troubled home life. With such varied ages and backgrounds, how did you research your characters to make them so believable?
I love people and enjoy watching them and asking questions. I have spoken to friends and colleagues over many years about people they know or are worried about. I read and listen to the radio all the time. I have a tendency to over-empathise, so situations that I hear about tend to occupy my mind and cause me to dwell on what it would be like to live another life. I researched police and safeguarding procedures at length, but I did no specific research for characters apart from to check the accuracy of background details, such as Foxy's Native American roots.
You also include swearing in the book, which some Christian readers may find off-putting. Why did you decide to do this?
I understand why some might find this off-putting but for the characters to have integrity and be believable for readers, it was an unfortunate necessity. Also, although Harry, a teenaged churchgoer, swears under pressure, I think it's good to show that people aren't expected to be perfect before they come to church. If that were the case, none of us would be there!
Overall, what do you hope your readers will glean from your book?
Never underestimate the power of local communities to provide friendship, support and a much-needed sense of belonging. Local churches are well placed to provide these things so don't rule them out! As the title of your piece suggests, being part of a strong, loving community helps us to become braver.
Braver is being published on 30 June. It is available to pre-order now, for £8.99.