It takes a lot of courage to write a Victorian novel in the 21st century. In The Mysteries of Glass, Sue Gee demonstrates mastery of the period, capturing in rich, languid detail country life on the Welsh border towns of Herefordshire. Recently ordained, Richard Allen has arrived to take up his first post as curate to sickly Reverend Oliver Bowen. Young and apprehensive, Allen soon comes to doubt the steadfastness of his faith when the first encounter of the Reverend's much younger wife, Susannah, has him feeling things he should not.

"And he prayed: that he would be given strength to serve, that he would not let himself be led to any kind of distraction, that he would only listen to God's will."

It becomes immediately apparent that Richard will lose his resolve, discovering how quickly "solid earth becomes translucent glass" when one betrays his calling. Gee's prose builds anticipation at a snail's pace. Furtive glances and long handshakes are the sum of Richard and Susannah's relationship for a third of the novel. Declarations of love, albeit internal, are as a result of the most simple of interactions.

"He took her hand. Without its glove, his skin touched hers. It felt as intimate as if she lay naked beneath him."

And when he is not sinning in his heart, Richard quietly observes and makes perfunctory attempts to participate in the life of his new community: Is Phillip Prosser, the church's custodian, secretly abusing his wife or is she merely suffering from a "nervous condition"? And exactly why was the woman who lives in the woods put in prison by the church?

Nothing much happens in this novel except evocative descriptions of the landscape, Richard Allen's mounting inner turmoil and the passing of the everyday lives of the parishioners. Gee's style will appeal to those who are patient. The novel evolves like one long sermon, where you trust there is deep meaning at its core.

By the time Richard and Susannah's fates are to be revealed, readers are rewarded — for their endurance — with a startling acceleration of events. Despite Gee's painstaking attention to detail, this novel manages to hold the reader's interest in characters who live rather ordinary existences —when they are not off committing sins against the Church.

* Gail Bailey is an Auckland writer.