Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Short Day Dying.
The Short Day Dying is a remarkably fine first novel by English writer Peter Hobbs. Hobbs gifts us with the personal journal of Charles Wenmoth for the year 1870. Charles is a man called by God to preach and minister to the people in his corner of Cornwall. In order to earn a living, he has apprenticed himself to a blacksmith. He works for the blacksmith six days a week, fitting his ministerial duties into spare moments during the week and on the Sabbath.
Charles loves the church but is discouraged by a dwindling attendance and declining commitment to God. Nearly penniless, he rents a room from a woman who dislikes him. His room is unheated, and the food is meager. He rarely has a horse or the money for a train, so he walks as he ministers to the people in the nearby villages. From village to village, from home to home, from his room to work, from church to church, over the hills and by the sea, Charles Wenmoth walks.
Charles is a deeply introspective man who has absolutely no insight, either into his own heart or into others. He is in love with the terminally ill Harriet and her death shakes him to the core, but he doesn’t know what is bothering him; he isn’t even aware he is in love. Harriet’s mother reaches out to him for help with her son, but he doesn’t get her clearly stated message. He wants to help people, but he doesn’t understand them and doesn’t know how to help. He walks to their homes and their places of work and their churches, observing and thinking, but not connecting to or understanding their lives.
As the year progresses, Charles lives past Harriet’s death, discouragement with his poverty, and a near drowning that leaves him seriously ill. He begins to question his call to preach. And he walks. He walks the hills and moors, seeking God in the places he is most likely to find Him, the lonely places where he and his thoughts and his God are alone.
Charles loses his confidence in God and in himself. Approaching thirty, he wonders if he will ever marry. Will he finish his apprenticeship? Is he really called to minister? Should he move to Australia, following his brother John? And he walks, seeking advice from his friend James, his godfather, his brother Tom. He seeks advice from everyone he respects, but is completely unaware that he no longer seeks God. He has nearly lost his faith without even being aware of it.
As the year 1870 draws to a close, Charles Wenmoth walks himself through his spiritual crisis and unanswered questions. These are his people, the people God has called him to minister to. There is no one else; if he doesn’t step up, his people will have no one to bring God’s word to them. Despite his losses, his lack of understanding and his questions, he is God’s man for this time and place.
Peter Hobbs does a remarkable job of placing us inside Wenmoth’s mind. We experience his disillusionment, his questioning, his despair. And we experience his bedrock faith that comes through in the end. Most of all, we experience his walking.
Using unfamiliar, archaic speech patterns and a complete absence of commas, Hobbs forces us to read with a walking rhythm and pace. He forces us into Charles Wenmoth’s world.
The Short Day Dying is a remarkable first novel. Peter Hobbs is definitely talented. He is also skilled. His talent shows, but it’s his skill—his amazing skill—that makes this novel exceptional.