Pewter Rose Press

Amelia and the Virgin

Nicky Harlow

Liverpool 1981. Amelia and her eccentric Catholic family are eagerly awaiting the Pope’s visit to the city. Increasingly disturbed by visions of a mysterious Goddess, Amelia becomes pregnant and is convinced her baby is the new Messiah. Marguerite, Amelia’s mother, ignorant of her daughter’s condition, takes an extended trip to Ireland to visit the order of nuns she has inherited. Amelia’s visions intensify and apparent miracles are performed. A cult develops and the family is divided. As believers swell in number and the papal visit nears, it becomes evident that Amelia and her unborn baby are in danger.

Fast-paced and grimly baroque, this is a wickedly funny tale of religious hysteria, human duplicity and corrupted innocence.

Read an extract here.

What people think of Amelia and the Virgin

"Amelia is 13 years old and lives with her mother, brother and extended family in 1980s Liverpool. Con, her great-uncle, is a psychiatrist with prestigious patients and a bit of a drink problem, Great-Aunt Edith is a devout Catholic with an inclination towards eccentricity and her brother, Julian, is a junky. Amelia's mother tries to hold everyone together but becomes slightly distracted when she inherits a convent in Ireland, complete with nuns. Amelia has her own problems, though. She sees visions of the Goddess Irena and is pregnant with the next Messiah. (A girl this time as the original male Messiah didn't have much luck.)

Where should I start? Very occasionally books come along ensuring that a five-star ranking system just isn't enough. Like proverbial buses, I've been blessed to read two in a week … my second 6-out-of-5 book is this one.

I came to
Amelia and the Virgin anticipating something in the vein of the rich tapestry of Liverpudlian tragic-comedy that has gone before, but not expecting anything half as superb. As far as I'm concerned, this book puts Nicky Harlow up on the top tier along with Willy Russell. Ok, having gushed, I shall now calm down and explain myself.

Amelia and the Virgin
is firstly a master class in writing an ensemble novel. There are a number of characters (including a house full of nuns at one stage) but each has their individual defined persona and the reader is never in doubt as to who they are or where they fit in. Where fitting in is concerned, each is almost like a stone in an arch in that they all have their purpose and if any were taken away, the book as a whole wouldn't be as rich. This book rolls along at a ripping pace and, in many authors' hands, would descend into chaos. However, Nicky Harlow orchestrates and finely tunes everyone's entrances and exits so that the reader may end up breathless, but not suffering from feelings of plot-deficiency or confusion.

Now the humour... This is actually a very dark, poignant book. Each character is chasing something to fill an emptiness. For instance, for Amelia it's the Goddess, Julian worships his drugs and Con has to choose between love for his family and his need for money. Even Marguerite, Amelia's mother, seeks something elsewhere that was missing at home. Yet the darkness and cynicism is clothed in a comedic sugar coating that makes it compelling. I won't recount any of the jokes as they need to be read in context, but Amelia's gran's deathbed scene is a classic. As for the description of the priest's popularity, it's only one sentence but I found myself smirking. Then the realisation hit me as to what the text was hinting... so I re-read it just to make sure I had understood... and then smirked again.

Amongst Nicky Harlow's jobs is creative writing tutor for Open University. Well, if those who can indeed do, whilst those who can't end up teaching, she is definitely the exception that proves the rule. I just hope, rather selfishly, that they don't make this into a film as the spoken word will miss so many nuances from the page... unless they allow Ms Harlow to write the screenplay, that is.

Ani Johnson

“ … A very accomplished novel. There is great life here, and pathos – and a sly wit. … Details are observed with a wonderfully sharp eye, and the sheer fabric of the lives of these characters is brilliantly rendered. Everything is woven skilfully into a rich and cohesive pattern.”

Paul Magrs

"Take a deep breath before having a go on the rollercoaster that is Amelia and the Virgin. Set in Liverpool in 1981, it tells the story of 13 year old Amelia who assumes her unborn child to be a new Messiah. As long as you don’t hold on to reality too tightly (would a 13 year old really not understand what a ‘monthly’ was? Her mother, Marguerite, not recognise that her daughter has bought a maternity bra? Sister Anne Margaret, Head of Amelia’s school, not see through Amelia’s disguise when she visits her at home?) then you will enjoy a brilliantly surreal and fast-paced ride told with wit and panache. Punctuating the narrative of Amelia’s mystical visions with the Goddess Irena and the apparent miracles she can subsequently perform are her family, a blur of wonderfully comic and bizarre creations. No one here is ‘normal’: even those family members who do not make an appearance are labelled as ‘Suicide Cousin’, Lupus Aunt’ and ‘Philandering Great-Uncle’. There are echoes of Father Ted and, in its plethora of totally eccentric characters, J.G. Farrell’s Troubles.

Yet the story’s catalyst is a family member’s sexual assault on Amelia and amongst the soaring episodes of pure farce – people falling over, getting drunk, ridiculous misunderstandings – there are dips into the bleakness and grittiness of real life. The heroin addiction of Julian, Amelia’s brother, his abandoned baby daughter and the suicide of the baby’s mother are a reminder that on the fringes of this blurred hysteria there exists genuine suffering. And what should not be forgotten is that at the heart of the novel lies an uncompromising critique of religious hypocrisy.

In addition, the writing itself is to be highly commended. In a writer of less ability the book might have remained a whacky one-off but Harlow makes it much more. Not only is she skilled at the throwaway line: the rescued child 'toddles off to receive more bruises from his mother' while Dolores, who has been clinging to the priest 'flamingo-like upon one leg …became a biped once more.' but she also knows when to slow down and write simply and beautifully. When Amelia, longing for the return of her mother, picks up a photograph of her she 'pressed it to her breast…if her mother was at home, then everything would be taken care of.'

This is a novel that is not easy to categorise. From the title one might suppose it to be a historical bodice-ripper and the cover gives nothing away. But good well-written books which don’t fit into any genre are the hallmark of Pewter Rose Press and as such Amelia and the Virgin is right on track."

Sue Wilsea

“Nicky Harlow's deftly plotted novel is peopled by a cast of eccentric characters amongst whom Amelia cuts a strangely normal figure. The story's dominant mood is comic, but darker shadows are visible beneath the lightness of the writing.”

Lynda Prescott