Hubert Anvil, a ten-year-old choirboy in the prestigious Cathedral Basilica of St. George in Coverley, the most important religious city in England, is faced with a dilemma. Although he may have very little personal control over the decision made, it will seriously affect the rest of his life. Experts brought in from the Vatican have advised Abbot Peter Thynne that the boy’s soprano voice is so rare that it would be foolish to allow the child to mature in the normal way. They suggest that emasculating him would give him a distinguished musical career as a castrato.
Such a situation might seem irrelevant in 1976, but Kingsley Amis has made a single adjustment in European history. The Protestant reformation is presumed never to have taken place. Martin Luther, rather than leaving the Catholic church, becomes the pope, and Henry VIII does not take Britain out of the Catholic church. Not only is Roman Catholicism the official reli-gion of Europe, but it is the ruling political force, and the aristocracies still reign throughout the continent. Only in North America is there a more benign, partially democratic government in power, and a form of Protestantism is practiced there.
Hubert comes to the conclusion that however famous he may become, he is not willing to reject a normal life. It is not simply a matter of saying no, however; his father, a prominent Catholic layman, is eager to please the powers of the church, particularly when he is called to Rome, where the pope offers to take Hubert into the Vatican choir. Hubert’s mother is against the “alteration” of her son, but her efforts to help him are ignored, and the attempt by her personal chaplain (and lover) to thwart both the religious and the civil authorities is met with a swift brutality that marks the nature of the Roman Catholic regime.
The boy attempts to escape with the help of some of his school friends and the American ambassador. He almost succeeds in getting out of the country and making his way to a freer life in America. At the last moment, however, his desire to evade castration is thwarted by a cruel turn of nature that settles the matter. The novel ends, some fifteen years later, with Hubert as the greatest religious singer of his age, but not without some sadness concerning the opportunities and experiences he has missed.