There is something seductive about cults--a fascination, a temptation into the lurid and unknown. In her fifth novel, Mr. Wroe's Virgins, award-winning author Jane Rogers has delved into the history of one such sect. In northern England, amid the religious fervor of the 1830s, Mr. Wroe presents himself to the Christian Israelites as their prophet. Several accurate premonitions cement his authority, so when he informs his congregation that "the Lord has instructed me to take your number seven virgins for comfort and succour," they send their daughters without question. The story is told through four of the women, beginning with Leah, who sets out to win Prophet Wroe's favor and gain sole dominion over the household.
Once Leah arrives, her life as a "sister in God" consists of backbreaking domestic labor. While she fails to corner Wroe's earthly attentions, she is granted permission to bring her son secretly into the household. Focused both on wooing the Prophet and on her baby, she is unaware of the other "sisters": Hannah, the cynical one, may leave soon, and the pious Joanna suffers a wrenching sacrifice for the sake of her faith. As factions of the church grow skeptical of both Wroe's powers and his domestic situation, Leah suspects that the Prophet has taken another woman for his mistress. A sudden loss fuels her anger, and she begins to plot Wroe's exposure and ruin. When she makes her accusations public, no one is prepared for the truth.
Rogers's narratives are sparked with some exceptionally lyrical passages, as when Hannah describes the church music as "a sound so hauntingly plaintive a stone would melt to hear it." And Mr. Wroe's Virgins is particularly strong at evoking an era, weaving together the different social forces of the time into the context of this one uncommon household. --Joannie Kervran Stangeland [via]