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The Acolyte
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The Acolyte

Author: Thea Astley



Paul Vesper is fifteen and impressionable when he first meets Jack Holberg, a blind pianist and sort of folk figure in the town of Grogbusters, a man totally different from Vesper's "rotarian dad."

Though Vesper eventually leaves town, goes off to college, and works as an engineer, he finds himself drawn back home when Holberg returns home from studying composition at a European conservatory. Eventually Vesper becomes part of Holberg's milieu, a transcriber of Holberg's compositions, confidante of his wife and sister-in-law, friend and admirer of Holberg's iconoclastic, elderly aunt, and a member of the "hideous Greek chorus of yes-men who can't do a thing ourselves."

The relationship between Holberg and Vesper and the parallel relationships between Vesper and the other members of Holberg's "family" are fascinating for their psychological insights, and Astley develops them with sophistication and elegance. The debilitating effect of Holberg on those surrounding him is obvious, but just as obviously, most of those involved with him are unable, for a variety of reasons, to break clear of him. They are, as Vesper says, "like the slaves who built tombs for the pharaohs," until, of course, the tension builds to a life-changing climax for all.

More character-based than many of Astley's other novels, this novel is filled with details which the reader must filter and evaluate in order to figure out what is happening. Astley is distanced from the action, requiring the reader to draw conclusions on his/her own. A certain archness or self-conscious cleverness, which may be appropriate in telling about a character like Holberg, nevertheless requires the reader to "translate" what she's saying into real-world terms, and it sometimes feels artificial and off-putting. Mordantly satirical in parts, the novel is filled with religious imagery, and as the tension between Holberg and his acolyte, Vesper, increases, the reader finds the boundaries between savior and sinner increasingly blurred. Mary Whipple

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