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God Made Us Monsters by Bill Neary is a seamless blend of historical and religious fiction, and while other books have attempted to combine those genres, few do it as inventively, or with as many risks, as Mr. Neary.
The novel is loosely based on the exploits of Father Damien (now Saint Damien), who arrived in Molokai in the 1870s to treat lepers in a colony so filled with hopelessness and death that it was known as the Mausoleum of the Dead. The good priest revolutionizes the medical treatment of leprosy. This is the historical fiction, which soon gives way to strong elements of religious fiction as a great evil arises on the island, encouraging and feeding on the despair and chaos for his own global ambitions. Teamed with several unlikely allies, Father Damien turns the tide on his demonic opponent in a true morality tale of good vs. evil.
There are several elements in God Made Us Monsters that make it an exceptional book:
Bill Neary’s description of the Hawaiian landscape are particularly stunning and capture the true tropical beauty of Molokai. It becomes clear that he has been there often, but more importantly, he does a good job of putting the reader there, too. The same is true of one character’s brutal upbringing in Victorian England. Here, Neary captures the awful working conditions and tremendous destitution with equal aplomb.
The descriptions of the leper’s condition are frightfully accurate and paints a harrowing, haunting image for the reader that is sure to stay with him or her for a long time. The same detail is brought to Father Damien’s methods of treatment of his patients, giving us what feels like firsthand accounts of the time.
Father Damien is a well-drawn out figure, full of depth that can be drawn from the historical record. More impressive, however, are the fictional characters that surround him, from an Irish plantation owner turned leper to a Navy pilot turned monk. Even the Hawaiian mystic who joins forces with Father Damien is exquisitely drawn and entirely believable. Only the British colonel comes across as a bit of a stereotype, more a Commander McBragg than full-fledged member of the British army, and yet Neary puts this character to good effect throughout the story as his motivation and penchant for evil are subtly weaved into the story.
Plot Twists. There are a number of unexpected turns in the story, but none more so than the international political intrigue that runs throughout the story but that comes to full fruition by the end. What could have been a simple good vs. evil, priest vs. devil story, is given a contemporary issue for the modern reader.
Experimental Writing. This may be the most pleasant surprise in the book. It’s rare that either historical or religious fiction attempt anything experimental, but two-thirds of the way into God Made Us Monsters, Mr. Neary does, and it works like a charm, as he captures the hallucinations of a downed pilot with an eerie accuracy that is nonetheless quite inventive.
If there is one drawback to the story, it’s that it takes place fifty to sixty years after the real Father Damien treated lepers on Molokai. This is less the real Father Damien than a fanciful retelling, though his accomplishments are real and his personality is compelling. Still, for someone wanting to get to know the real Father Damien, there are plenty of nonfiction books for that. This minor drawback, however, in no way stands in the way of a solid story and a terrific debut novel from Bill Neary.
Check out God Made Us Monsters if you’re looking for a challenging yet thoroughly engaging read.
This series presents books I’ve edited through New Author Editing that I find far above average. It will hardly be a comprehensive list, but it will also not include every book I’ve edited. I receive no compensation for these reviews, not even through Amazon’s Affiliate program. It’s simply my professional and objective opinion.