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Abode of Love: Growing Up in a Messianic Cult

by Kate Barlow

Kate Barlow’s memoir is as full of secrets as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, yet as cozy as an Enid Blyton story. Told largely from the point of view of Barlow as a bright and curious girl, the book begins by making us believe that we have stumbled upon a fusty but charming country house where the elderly residents have nothing more exciting to do than drink tea and chat with the young Barlow and her sisters. But, as in the very best storytelling tradition, all is not as it seems.

Barlow’s grandfather was a charismatic religious man who left the Church of England to join a breakaway religious community that attracted many educated and wealthy people in the 19th century. Belovèd (born John Hugh Smyth-Pigott) led the community for more than half a century, during which the outside world was scandalized by rumours of sexual misdoings and of Smyth-Pigott proclaiming himself divine. By the time Barlow was born in 1948, the community was in rapid decline: Barlow’s mother ended up working in a factory to keep her and her sisters in good schools.

From the start, Barlow hints that there are skeletons in the family’s closet. Her search to uncover them begins with innocent “rooting” expeditions she and her sisters undertake to investigate the old house’s many unused rooms. Barlow finally learns the whole truth about her family and is able to convey just how disturbing the revelations are. She also reveals the reasons why her parents divorced and how she eventually came to understand her difficult mother.

Barlow vividly evokes her own child’s viewpoint while also demonstrating a deep understanding of the adults involved. In addition, the contrast between Barlow’s matter-of-fact descriptions and the bizarre messianism of her grandfather makes her book a multilayered pleasure to read.