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Faith Fox by Jane Gardam is the perfect holiday read, even if you’re a secular person like me and reach for the antacid when you read anything sentimental. If you’re religious, even if only once a year, then you’ll find in Faith Fox a clear-eyed, entertaining read, worthy by far of a BBC production, that drifts like a steady tide towards a moving and surprising solution that got to me, despite all the barriers I put up to such things.

Holly Fox is a popular young wife about town, always has a smile on her face, an always welcoming pure extrovert. If you want to admire classic storytelling-telling skills like writers don’t use so much anymore, then you repair to Jane Gardam. For many pages, we hear how popular Holly is, and only when deep into the story do we find some characters have negative things to say about her.

Holly dies, on the first pages of the story so that’s not a spoiler, while giving birth to her first and only child, Faith. The tragic death of Holly Fox tears apart an elaborate social network of relatives and friends. And through the rest of the novel, Gardam will show you who these people are as they attempt to re-balance their relationships as if they’re on a boat that’s about to capsize. I couldn’t keep all the names straight at first (Who’s that again?) but by the end I couldn’t forget anyone because I loved them all.

It’s easier for a writer to tell a story with many players because you can touch on everyone a bit, shift the focus here and there, and that’s a lot easier than having just two or three character dolls to play with. Gardam sets up intriguing chess games with them; I can imagine the organizational chart. You will pick favorites.

There’s Holly’s diffident husband Andrew, Holly’s dedicated, disciplined mother Thomasina, friend Pammie, minor crooks, the Smike brothers Ernie and Nick, who stay at the Priory, a ruined abbey on the moors of Yorkshire that’s too damaged to restore. Jack, who is Andrew’s’ more empathic elder brother, runs the place as a religious retreat for lost or damaged souls…sort of like a commune. They have a group of displaced Tibetans staying in temp housing huts on the property. Father Jack, an ordained Anglican priest, is a feckless do-gooder. There’s Dolly and Toots, Andrew and Jack’s aging parents who live a couple of miles away, closer to town, and have trouble getting around. There’s lot of seniors in this story, usually the case with Gardam, like dotty but bright Madelaine and her husband Puffy, disabled and frozen in position, staring up at the ceiling day and night. There’s Jack’s wife, the occult Jocasta and her sharp son, teenager Phillip, from an older, unspecified relationship. Many others, all interesting, and Faith Fox, the best characterization of an infant I’ve encountered in fiction.

Jane Gardam’s fiction seems older than it is. Faith Fox was published in 1996 and its setting is contemporary but Gardam’s novels have the flavor of the 1950’s with some of the 1960’s thrown in. They are insider novels. The characters are mainly upper-class Anglicans living in that shell. This is a world where everyone either knows the vicar or is an outsider, and reaching the palace is not out of the question for some of the characters. Gardam’s good at portraying outsiders, but they remain as such. There’s a south home counties/north split that’s jarring. There’s a gray sadness under the surface, a mourning for the lost greatness of an Empire on a small island.

Why would I want to read a book about insiders when I’m not on the inside? Why would I want to read a writer as devotedly Christian as Gardam when my church, if I have one, doesn’t have a roof? I love Jane Gardam; she’s a great traditional writer along the lines of Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor (the writer) and she’s the best of them. She can tell a story. She has characters you won’t hate, although you may be disappointed in some of them.

The novel ends on Christmas day.