Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Angels and Men by Catherine Fox

The City is a galleon sailing on the river. Listen to the wind thrumming in the trees and singing round the chimney pots. High on the crow's nest of the cathedral hear the ping-ping-ping of rope against flagpole. This is where the angels pass by. These are the angel paths, the windy walkways. They are clothed with polished air and their faces are the faces of statues, bright as sunlight off water. No one sees them.
I'm going to file this under Northumbrian Books - okay, I know it's not, it's Durham, but I said I was going to apply the category loosely. And, to be fair, I found it during my hunt for books set in Northumberland, so it occupies that place in my mind. And I am so glad I found it, because it is terrific!

Mara is a postgraduate at Durham University, researching women in cults for her Master's -- a topic she's chosen because she had a disturbing experience with a sect which sucked in both her and her twin sister. It quickly becomes evident that she was emotionally frail anyway, but is now deeply scarred, and she's arrived at university determined to stay aloof from her fellow students and to concentrate on her work. Her detachment is read as contempt by those around her, particularly by her neighbour in her hall of residence, whom she has immediately named "the polecat". Two of the undergrads, however, May and Maddy, both, like Mara, clergy daughters, refuse to be put off by by her manners, and set out to befriend her. In their wake are clean-cut Rupert and local boy Johnny, both ordinands, both wildly attractive, and the disturbingly insidious Joanna, whose religion is of the charismatic kind. Mara finds herself, albeit against her will, caught up in college life and struggling to maintain the defences she's built to protect herself from further damage.

Does this sound oppressive? Well, it might be, except that Mara is cursed -- for someone who wants to stay angry all the time -- with a sense of humour. She can be disarmed by wit. The story as it unfolds is by turns funny and painful, but always compelling, and even when she's accused of histrionics, Mara's pain is plausible and convincing. Despite her prickliness, though, it's clear to the reader that she is capable of the active process of healing, however reluctantly she embarks on it. The other students both help and hinder, of course.

The intensity of college life is wonderfully depicted against the background of cathedral and castle -- Fox's portrait of the city reminds me a little of Elizabeth Goudge's portrayal of Ely and Wells, perhaps in the way that they both linger on rock and stone, the cathedrals rooted in the earth but soaring upwards. The river runs a constant course through the novel too, while behind the massive city sprawl the industrial wastelands of Johnny's birthplace.

I ache for a sequel to Angels and Men. Fox has written two other books which I'll be reading just as soon as I get my paws on them (warning: the third, Love for the Lost, is hard to find if you get hooked, and expensive). Meantime, I shall be busily imagining futures for all the characters...

Cross-posted at Geranium Cat's Bookshelf

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