St. Agatha's Breast

T.C. Van Adler

St. Martin's Press 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
St Agatha's Breast is a wickedly funny and utterly irreverent tale of murder, sex, and art, set in a modern Roman monastery. Adler knows the worlds of art history and the Church well and he uses this background to produce a story and characters that combine realism and plausibility with outrageous, over-the-top caricature. The second half fails to maintain the sheer extravagance of the first and the ending is a bit weak, but St Agatha's Breast is still clever, original, and entrancing.

The monastery of San Redempto is in a sorry state. Not only is it falling apart physically, but the dozen remaining members of the community are far from exemplary. The sinister Otger panders to the depraved lusts of the prior, Emmanuele. Emeritus Professor of Mystical Theology Avertanus carries out archaic Christian and Mithraic rituals in an attempt to ward off evil. Dionysius has a common-law wife and child — and an indefatigable erection. Bertie is infatuated with a male prostitute. Cuthbert and Angelus are on a secret mission to plan the shutting down of the monastery. And Pius is just doddery. Of the three lay brothers, one is a simpleton and the other two are canny Basque peasants who are systematically looting the monastery of everything of value.

When six of a set of seven 17th century paintings are stolen, everything starts to unravel. Archivist Brocard (the most "normal" inhabitant of the monastery) suspects that the remaining painting, of Saint Agatha's martyrdom, could be the work of French master Nicholas Poussin. This brings him into contact with Zinka Pavlic, a larger-than-life (42 inch bust) transsexual art historian. But before anything can be resolved mayhem commences, leaving half the community dead in a variety of macabre ways — and, after an inundation, the monastery is shut down and the building destroyed.

Things then calm down a bit. The remaining fathers are scattered to out of the way places: Avertanus to a dumping ground for "terminally ill, burnt out, and ministerially superfluous monks", Brocard to a liberal college in the United States, Bertie with his lover to a mountain village (where they start up a pornographic web site), and Dionysius to the Vatican library. They and Zinka link up by email as the attempt to prove the attribution of Saint Agatha progresses and, after some amusing contretemps and a triumphant ending, evil eventually meets its just deserts.

March 2001

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%T St. Agatha's Breast
%A Adler, T.C. Van
%I St. Martin's Press
%D 1999
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0312200196
%P 292pp