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Book review: Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan

Review by Bob Hart.

In 2015, Arthur Cave, the son of musician and songwriter Nick Cave, died in a fall from a cliff near his home in Brighton.

Faith, Hope and Carnage is a collection of transcripts from phone conversations between Nick Cave and the journalist Seán O’Hagan as they discuss grief, loss, faith, and the artistic process.

For those unfamiliar with Cave and his work, his musical career began as a member of the Australian band the Birthday Party in the late ‘70s. Forming Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in 1983, he went on to develop a highly distinctive and challenging style of songwriting that has evolved continuously throughout his career.

As well as continuing to perform with the Bad Seeds, he has been involved in numerous other bands and collaborations as well as producing novels and other artworks.

Over a lengthy but absorbing series of conversations, Faith, Hope and Carnage explores Cave’s response to the loss of his son.

The book approaches difficult subject matter in a very readable way - Cave is thoughtful, honest and incredibly articulate throughout, offering an insight into emotional states that we are sadly reluctant to talk about.

Ever since Bay Health Festivals started, one of its aims has been to encourage people to have open conversations about the end of our own lives and those we love.

These are conversations many of us don’t want to have, but as Cave says in the book: “[Loss] is ordinary, in that it happens to all of us at some time or another. We are all, at some point in our lives, obliterated by loss. If you haven’t been by now, you will be in time - that’s for sure. And, of course, if you have been fortunate enough to have been truly loved, in this world, you will also cause extraordinary pain to others when you leave it. That’s the covenant of life and death, and the terrible beauty of grief.”

Throughout the conversations, the pair explore how bereavement affected both his Christian faith and his approach to writing songs.

He says: “The loss of my son is a condition, not a theme. It’s a condition and, as such, it infuses everything. My relationship to words has changed, for sure, but so has my relationship to all things. My life is lived with a different intensity.”

Faith, Hope and Carnage was first published in 2022 with a new paperback edition featuring an additional chapter released in 2023.

The book received universal critical acclaim, but was also endorsed by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams who described it as an “integrated and searching engagement with how faith works, how creativity works, and how grief is bound up with both”.

It’s important to say that you don’t need to be a fan of Nick Cave’s music to take something away from this book.

That said, as a longstanding fan of Cave’s music I was unable to resist listening to the records as I read and found that hearing the songs alongside the context of the writing and recording process added depth to both the music and the book.

This is a book that will stay with you long after you’ve reached the final page - there’s wisdom here for all of us, and a new way of thinking about and talking about grief and loss.

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