Although it seems now to belong to a distant time, for Roman Catholics growing up in the 1950s and 1960s the contraception issue was a central preoccupation. The Church prohibited all "artificial" methods of contraception, and the only form of birth control permitted to Catholics was the so-called rhythm method: couples (married, naturally) were supposed to regulate conception by timing intercourse to occur only at those phases in the wife's menstrual cycle when conception was held to be unlikely. Careful measurement of body temperature was supposed to help in this. In practice the rhythm method was demanding and difficult to use and frequently failed. Couples were therefore faced with the uncomfortable choice of having large numbers of unlooked-for children or going against the demands of their Church.
It is this dilemma that forms the theme of Lodge's novel. At the beginning we meet a group of young male and female students and we follow them to middle age as they experiment with sex, get married, get pregnant, and find their own ways of compromising and coming to terms with their consciences. Two of these young people opt out in different ways: Miles, the aesthete and intellectual, discovers he is homosexual (which has its own problems for a Catholic) and Ruth becomes a nun. The others eventually give up the struggle and take the Pill, often with the tacit approval of their parish priest. But although the contraceptive question is central to the plot, it is set in the wider context of the changes in the Catholic Church which, in the second half of the twentieth century, transformed it almost out of recognition from what it had been up to then. Notable among these changes is loss of the fear of damnation: Hell ceases to be real to the characters by the end of the book. But not death; that becomes more real to them as they age, as it does to all of us. The tone of the book is generally comic though with darker overtones: one couple has a Downs syndrome child and loses a child through an accident, while another character is mentally unstable and has repeated psychotic episodes.
It is perhaps surprising that none of the characters entirely loses faith in religion and becomes an atheist. Even Polly, the most hedonistic and irreligious of all of them, secretly baptizes one of her infant children who is seriously ill—and then baptizes the other child as well, just for good measure. Of course, if any of the characters did reject religion altogether, they would cease to have any relevance to the plot, so perhaps this is why they all stay at least within the broad bounds of belief.
Lodge is an academic, and was still, at the time of writing, a professor of modern English literature, so it is hardly surprising that he breaks the narrative convention at times to comment directly on his characters and on the changing face of Catholicism. This may to some extent be a concession to literary fashion, but he seems also to wish to use the device as a means of coming to terms with the nature of belief. He treats fiction as analogous to belief, or perhaps belief as another version of fiction (fiction has been described as the willing suspension of disbelief). Here the author is speaking as an unidentified voice in a transcript of a television programme.
We must not only believe, but know that we believe, live our belief and yet see it from outside, aware that in another time, another place, we would have believed something different (indeed, did ourselves believe differently at different times and places in our lives) without feeling that this invalidates belief. Just as when reading a novel, or writing one for that matter, we maintain a double consciousness of the characters as both, as it were, real and fictitious, free and determined, and know that however absorbing and convincing we may find it, it is not the only story we shall want to read (or, as the case may be, write) but part of an endless sequence of stories by which man has sought and will always seek to make sense of life. And death.
This is an entertaining book that will certainly appeal to older Catholics who lived through those times; younger readers, I suspect, whether Catholic or not, will find it largely incomprehensible. The mindset of Catholics in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century seems now almost as remote as that of people in the Middle Ages.