Jersey is a self-governing parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy, with its own financial, legal and judicial systems, and the power of self-determination. The Lieutenant Governor on the island is the personal representative of the Queen.
You’ll be relieved to hear that Jersey is not part of the United Kingdom, furthermore Jersey is not fully part of the European Union but has a special relationship with it – so no Brexit shenanigans for now (that will come in a couple of books time!). For more on this status, just don’t forget to (re)watch the ‘UK Explained’ video I posted earlier in the Isle of Man review…
And so onto one of the final novels of my global journey…one that explores this area of natural beauty and biodiversity along with its dubious reputation as a tax haven by some organisations.
This thriller of angels, demons, and corporate espionage could, at first glance, be seen as yet another formulaic Da Vinci Code clone; but it is anything but that… What I Tell You in the Dark is an intelligent, unsettling story of impotent omnipotence, mayhem, capitalism, mental illness and corruption.
Not bad for a debut novel (by John Samuel, nom de plume of Sam Le Quesne – a travel editor and communications adviser – who currently lives with in Jersey).
This book, for all its tales of corporate greed and secretive Vatican machinations, is at its core a character study of a nameless angel who has been out of God’s favour since things went wrong with his last mission, two thousand years ago. He has spent the intervening millennia watching the humanity he so loves fall into moral disrepair – a consumerist ‘greed is good’ malaise. Lately, he’s been watching Will, a London businessman attempting to expose his company’s dark dealings to the press. But Will’s campaign is not going well.
In a moment of weakness and bravado, the angel decides to spiritually take Will over— “jumping in” as he did as he did with Jesus of Nazareth, seeing in Will's struggles an opportunity to make amends for the devastating consequences that his last act wreaked on the western world. But as the angel comes up against demonic forces fighting to maintain the status quo, Will increasingly loses his grip on himself. As he soon remembers, being human - with all our potential, our insecurities and all our weaknesses - is not easy. As Will begins to lose his grip on himself and his mission, the reader is forced to question exactly whose reckoning this is: Are these the delusions of a man who has lost his grip on reality? Or the illusion of an angel desperate to right our wrongs?
The novel is a page turner with brains, a soul and a healthy dose of pathos and black humour. The wider plot concerning this corporate whistle blower who may or may not be possessed by an avenging angel, and his attempts to unmask an international conspiracy that links the Vatican with a major pharmaceutical company could lead to over-exposition. Instead the book offers a slick and sympathetic portrait of a man falling apart in the modern world, a rich commentary on religious mania and a moving portrayal of the possible effects of mental illness. It's engagingly written throughout - sometimes shocking, often funny, occasionally very sad, but always enthralling, and with a central character that works his way into your heart over the course of the book.
That is not to say that the author does not portray a sense of place and location here – whilst the Vatican remains a shadowy background cult having forsaken God for gold, London is well invoked as the faceless, morally bankrupt landscape of mankind’s disrepair – from the shining corporate edifices to the rat-infested drug havens of forgotten council flats just a stone’s throw away.
Jersey itself plays an interesting part here; a place of natural beauty where the hidden gold assets flow from shady investment fund to shady fund, oblivious to the wonder of the world it traverses. Even more interesting this is the rural idyll of Will's former Physics professor, a discipline which Will chose over Theology (much to his priest father’s sadness) and then similarly abandoned. Yet the search for gold, the unattainable promise of a sun’s new dawn after the dark, touches even here with its relentless drive to find the building blocks, the base elements that the universe must surely be made of?
And finally, mirroring this rural stereotype, Will’s home, his concerned family, the disappointment of his well-meaning but misguided father; the perfect nuclear family symbolised by the eternal gold band of the wedding ring and made imperfect by Will’s ‘episodes’. Another failure to get the real point across as Will sees it, that he was making two millennia ago... enjoy what there is, life is precious, make that enough and don’t waste it on striving for a golden eternity of heaven and baubles of commerce, live your life now, whilst you can. It’s enough.
In a sense these four locations form the four interlinking points that come together in a narrative cross – the story is as much of Fall as Redemption; and from an ‘Angel’ who cried out “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” on the cross at Calvary the ending is especially poignant.
Now, you may think from the above that What I Tell You in the Dark is a hugely sacrilegious and complex read, but you can rest assured – the humour is well balanced, and the references to God, Heaven, and Angels are equally balanced with the improbable vagaries of quantum physics and the rise of consumerism and rapid technological growth. It helps that Will is rather an unreliable narrator – as one continues through the book, it fast becomes unclear to the reader whether Will really is possessed by an Angel, or simply in the grips of mental illness. Neither the religion or the mental illness are taken particularly lightly, despite the humour of this book, and John Samuel’s writing ability is such that one really starts to care about the characters and events.
A climactic ending combined with revelations as to the true nature of Will and his celestial passenger, are particularly affecting, and will mean something fundamentally different to each reader, for we all have our own individual sense of meaning. And perhaps that is the point of this thought-provoking and very human novel.
Thus, I set out on my penultimate trip to the Principality of Sealand – a tiny micronation that, fittingly, raises questions over the very notion of what constitutes a country…
As you might imagine going from one of the world’s tiniest states to an even tinier one (0.0015 square miles in size) is not a simple task…
So, if you’re interested – I take the two-hour Condor Ferries ‘Commodore Clipper’ back to Guernsey for £20 unallocated seating, then connect with the once-daily ferry to Poole ($70 for a three-hour crossing). After a half hour walk, I arrive at Poole station for the regular 2h 9min train to London Waterloo (an eye-watering $190). Once there it’s a brief rediscovery of the joys of the tube (21 minutes on the Jubilee line) to Stratford Station and yet another hour and a half on the train to Harwich (changing at Manningtree) an eastern port town on the North Sea where I can, barely in the sea spray, see my destination of the Principally of Sealand, aka former UK military fort Roughs Tower. As I peer through the mist, I put any thoughts of my trip to Jersey aside and steel myself for the next leg…
For this is no journey’s end. This tiny state does not welcome visitors openly (shots have previously been fired at British Naval Vessels that have strayed too close) and I am fortunate to use my status as an official Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Sealand to gain access with the agreement of Prince Michel Bates.
This involved a stomach-churning trip over choppy, cold grey water in an inflatable rig piloted by a genial but taciturn fellow who doubles as maintenance man and sole Sealand inhabitant during Prince Michael’s periods on shore. A quick clamber up decidedly precarious iron steps and I stand atop the main deck of the tiniest and possibly most disputed of my destinations: the Principality of Sealand.