This is a wonderfully written and closely observed book with two interwoven stories, one absolutely brilliant, the other less engaging, but both provoking questions about responsibility and guilt.
The novel centres on a Northern Irish Protestant family and particularly two sisters, Liz and Alison.
Alison had stayed in Ulster, has two kids, works at her Dad’s estate agency, and is about to embark on her second marriage to a seemingly nice if slightly uninspiring guy called Stephen.
Liz left Ulster for an academic life, lives in New York, and is about to go to Papa New Guinea to present a TV programme on a new religion that has sprung up there, but is back home for Alison’s wedding.
Alison’s story is incredible. It transpires, the day after they are married, that Stephen is in fact called Andrew and is a former terrorist who killed five innocent people in a pub shooting at the height of the troubles, but was given early release through the Good Friday Agreement.
Liz didn’t know because although she knew he had a past she’d never really wanted the details; the chapters building up to the wedding explain why she would rather bury her head in the sand than confront a difficult truth.
Liz meanwhile travels to Papa New Guinea with some BBC types and meets the leader of the new religion – Story – as well as a family of evangelical Christians spreading God’s message there. Things gradually unravel and Liz is thrown against the question of whether she should observe or intervene.
In a way that’s at the heart of the book, the question of how responsible you can be for something that you did not do or intend: how responsible is Liz when she doesn’t act against barbaric acts, or Alison for not enquiringly more about Stephen’s past, or Judith – their Mum – for always making Alison feel unloved, or Stephen for past actions?
The Gods of the title provide something of a guide to people, but not necessarily with the answers people want to hear.