What would you do if you inherited a significant fortune from a total stranger? How about if you were legally unable to share it with anyone else?
These are the questions that Cerys, the meek and humble protagonist of Christ on a Bike, must wrangle with.
Routinely unnerving, each chapter becomes progressively more uncomfortable as the source of the inheritance comes into question. In fact, Orla Owen’s third novel goes to some startlingly dark places.
It’s a compelling setup, and Christ on a Bike duly delivers dollops of payoffs. This is a brilliant novel – and one that would make for an equally brilliant TV drama.
The perils of greed
Speaking of television, the BBC once ran a TV drama called The Syndicate. This was about friends and families winning big on the lottery and how extreme changes in personal wealth can alter people in unexpected ways.
Owen takes this a step further, with the wealth possessing a uniquely selfish legal agreement.
There are rules attached, one of which is that Cerys cannot share her wealth with another soul under any circumstances. Her finances are audited by a specially-selected financial adviser, and the keepers of the estate have an uncanny ability to sniff out non-compliance.
It’s particularly pertinent that Christ on a Bike is set to release in the midst of an international cost of living crisis. From a readerly point of view, this context has a huge impact on how the novel is read.
As Cerys’ lifestyle becomes increasingly lavish, with decadent details around the gorging of luxury truffles, and frivolous purchases of expensive branded soap and silky bed sheets, it makes for a physically nauseating read.
This isn’t a criticism. To the contrary, it’s a remarkable achievement, eliciting a physical sensation of revulsion towards glutton via the medium of print.
Meanwhile, Cerys’s sister Seren struggles to run a family home and cannot even dream of the excess wealth her sister has inherited by chance.
And whilst Cerys is a more empathetic individual, Seren is more volatile. The money amplifies these character traits, and the disparity between the two creates an uncomfortable cocktail of guilt and envy.
Narrative & characters
As a writer, Owen positions herself as one who “focuses on the dark and macabre side of family life, the parts that go on behind closed doors.” And never is this more true than in Christ on a Bike, with tension around Cerys’s inheritance poisoning the relationships with her sister.
But the joy with this book is the incongruity between the subject matter and Owen’s own writing style. Her prose possesses a welcoming, approachable whimsy that captures the everyday in a genuinely satisfying manner; not unlike another Bluemoose author, Rónán Hession.
Between a mysterious recurring figure in Cerys’s new life and the feeling she’s being watched, Christ on a Bike retains a tense discomfort throughout. After all, what are the consequences of breaking this agreement? Can she back out of it? What would happen if she tried?
And it’s this dissonance between Owen’s affable style and the macabre narrative that unsettles the reader.
Owen’s novel broaches these questions – plus a number of moral quandaries befitting the biblical theme. And it’s a lot of fun.
Christ on a Bike is another feather in the proverbial cap of Bluemoose Books, and of Owen herself.
Each chapter has been crafted with a finesse that characterises the type of novel that Bluemoose Books publishes.
It’s clean, lean writing that never prevaricates or wastes the reader’s time. As I noted in my review of Heidi James’s The Sound Mirror, it’s clear that the team at Bluemoose have some remarkable editors on staff.
Owen is a fantastic writer too, which makes it easy to recommend Christ on a Bike to almost anyone. This is a novel that’s well paced and contains a darkly compelling narrative, with a divine writing style.