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Cut from different cloth

The storm clouds of the Second World War are gathering.

But, until the bombs actually start raining from the sky, the conflict feels very remote from this shipbuilding community on the Clyde, where a battle for hearts and minds is already taking place.

For his fifth novel, Glasgow-based author Michael Cannon pits compassion and generosity against self-righteousness and fanaticism in a devoutly Catholic town, where the arrival of an alcoholic drifter and his two children raises tensions to breaking point. Amid concerns that the children are being neglected, local priest Father Delaney, a drinker who's seen better days, gets them enrolled in the hardship fund. And once they start school, the girl, Georgina, is quickly selected by her fervently religious teacher Miss Herne for special attention.

Miss Herne is the star attraction of Articles Of Faith, and there's no denying the temptation to picture her as someone at least vaguely resembling Miss Jean Brodie and hearing her dialogue in the voice of Maggie Smith. Perhaps that's unfair on Michael Cannon after all the work he's put into his creation, but the comparisons are unavoidable. Imperious, dismissive, Miss Herne is practically a force of nature: a schoolmistress with a cutting remark never far from her lips, utterly convinced of her place among the elect. Unlike Jean Brodie, however, her cause isn't aesthetics or fascism but Catholicism.

Even priests can look like uncommitted slackers next to the fervently pious Miss Herne, and it doesn't take long for Father Delaney's new assistant, the much younger Father Paolo Bernacchi, to notice that, for Miss Herne, worship is not a communal act: the rest of the congregation are merely clutter, an irrelevant sideshow to her own intense relationship with God. When she picks Georgina as her protégé, it doesn't take a theologian to see that the association could be dangerous for the girl, and the young priest feels that she must be wrested from under the teacher's influence.

But if Miss Herne is the most instantly memorable character, her spiritual nemesis Father Bernacchi is the best-written, and all the most profound and meaningful moments in the book involve him in some way. Bernacchi is no novice, but it's through his placement in Father Delaney's parish that he truly learns who he is.

Over a series of ever more affecting scenes, he grows to understand that the decrepit cynic he's come to assist is not the man he will eventually become but ultimately the man he will define himself against. The gout-ridden old priest admits that Bernacchi is the real deal, a man who could love his flock the way Delaney never could, but the compliment contains its own challenge: "They'll come to you with questions now. I hope you've got the answers."

When the occasion demands, Cannon can inject a wonderful sardonic tone to his prose, as seen in one of the earliest of Father Delaney's scenes, during which he surreptitiously mocks the old priest from the sidelines and has one of his characters deal with a domestic upset "with the speed of having been spat out of a revolving door". Somewhat surprisingly, he uses this talent for humour sparingly, settling into a sober, dignified tone in keeping with the themes of the story.

In a town where religion, and deference to the cloth, is embedded in the fabric of the community, it's natural that some people will expect the death of an old fraud to be accompanied by angelic choirs simply because he has "put in the hours". But that would be to overlook the humanity, generosity and simple concern for others we see in this shipyard town right from the outset. Cannon has followed up four well-received novels (including a previous wartime book, Lachlan's War) with a thoughtful and humane celebration of that human instinct to choose compassion and conscience over rules and rituals, even when - for us faltering, mistake-prone humans - that can be the hardest path of all.

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