Editor's Note: Now available as a trade paperback, the sequel, 'Angelopolis' has just been released in hardcover.
Knowing who you are is not so straightforward as you might hope. The degree to which we are shaped by the lives we have lived is an invisible cage. The stories those whom we are fated to love and trust have told us are the baseline from which we build our identity. It's easy to be hopelessly, helplessly trapped and have no concept of your confinement.
Sister Evangeline looks forward to a life of quiet servitude as a nun in the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in the wilds of upstate New York. She's in charge of rejecting those who would seek access to the convent's papers, but the letter from Verlaine requesting access to correspondence between the late Mother Innocenta and Abigail Rockefeller touches a nerve, as does the man himself. That letter is the first page to be turned in a very complicated and ultimately compelling story.
'Angelology' by Danielle Trussoni establishes itself early on as something much more than a religious thriller. A prologue gives us a glimpse of the monsters, and the prose and pacing are those of a novel of gothic horror. There's a brooding, detailed feel to the story that unfolds here, rather slowly. 'Angelology' builds its case carefully and lures the reader into a pleasingly complicated secret history. Trussoni focuses on character, place and atmosphere and delivers a novel where what we know — about ourselves, our worlds and the characters in the novel — are the through-lines for an engrossing story.
The reason to file this one with Gothic Horror as opposed to vapid thriller is Trussoni's prose, which feels carefully (but never overly) crafted. She matches her words to her environments, which trend towards old, decaying, decadent and scholarly. The convent of Sister Evangeline's confinement is deeply described. Trussoni has a great facility for crafting the geography of her settings, giving us a firm feel for the places where conversations about obscure letters and musty history turn out to have a sort of cultural resonance.
Driving the story are characters who step forth from the shadows but never leave them behind. Evangeline embarks on a classic gothic heroine's journey of self-discovery, while Verlaine finds himself employed by the Grigoris, who prove to be more powerful than he might have been disposed to believe. The Grigoris are in fact one of a number of fallen angels, part of a complicated cosmology that Trussoni reveals over the arc of the novel. These angels are rich beyond compare and not on the side of the angels as we might have guessed. But the spoiled, soiled rich — with wings — make for enjoyable antagonists who are just as interested in Evangeline's identity as she is.
'Angelology' follows the gothic plot template, offering readers a novel where the plot unfolds in a series of revelations about the true nature of the world. Trussoni makes entertaining and extremely gripping explorations into history, with a World War II archaeological dig that's quite thrilling and not a little bit surreal. Some scenes unlocked from Evangeline's memories hang like nightmares, even as they slot nicely into her world-within-a-world-building plot.
Ultimately, 'Angelology' takes flight towards a sequel, but Trussoni's first novel in the series is a satisfying story unto itself. Our spiritual journeys of self-discovery are ultimately exercises in escape from the confines in which we have kept ourselves. Only when we understand our own identity is escape even conceivable. Actually doing so is another matter entirely, but in reading 'Angelology' it's possible to rediscover this world, to look at the shadows and see more than an absence of light.
04-02-13:MacKenzie Bezos Sets 'Traps'
Need to Know
We have an instinct to know. It is a core aspect of what it means to be human; show us anything we do not know and our first reaction will be to try to find out just what it is and why you are showing it to us. In theory then, this might mean that the beginning of any novel would get us inside and make us read it to the end, but that's clearly not the case.
In 'Traps,' MacKenzie Bezos introduces us to four very different and disparate women; Dana, a young woman working as a security guard, Jessica, a well-to-do housewife, Vivian, a very young mother, and Lynn, an older woman who lives on a ranch. Taken out of context, there's a random feel to these choices. These women have no connection.
But they are clearly the main characters in this novel. The prose speaks to the reader, and tells us about them. It is compellingly clear that we are meeting them for a reason. They are prickly, fascinating and very real. Will they — how will they — come together? Read slowly and savor the journey — you have just a little more than 200 pages to find out.
'Traps' is an intense and fascinating take on the novel of suspense. From the first paragraph, the prose hews close the characters while simultaneously keeping a certain circumspect distance. Bezos takes us down to a granular level of details with such skill that you might find yourself observing you own life in her prose voice. Dialogue is clipped and natural, never showy. What's left unsaid is just as present as the topic of any given conversation. Even introspection is trimmed to a character level. Jessica is rather self-absorbed, Dana much less so — at least at first. Bezos creates stunningly memorable scenes and characters with a minimum of fuss. Every once in a while, she'll pull back and remind us that there is a storyteller who will never be in the story. It's an unsettling effect that ratchets up the tension.
The four main characters we will get to know as the novel progresses have the frailty and flaws of people who might be in your life. A large part of the suspense here comes from getting to know each of these women. Bezos makes this worth our time, giving us women who have a raw edge; if there's a similarity between any of the main characters, it's that they all have some quite reasonable and realistic source of unhappiness in their lives. Some of these reasons are rather threatening, but Bezos also goes to some lengths to make sure that while we empathize with their problems, we never pity them. This novel has hard edges.
The general perspectives move from one woman to the next, but the cast is fairly large and memorable for such a short novel. Every character has men and other women in their lives, and surprisingly, Bezos is able to write them with the proper density so that we can keep them all straight and know who fits where into her increasingly intricate plot machine and in what manner. No matter who we are with, the book is enjoyable to read, and the tension steps up with every page turned.
'Traps' derives a lot of its reading fun from the variety of echoes, reverberations and coincidences that show up just often enough to add effectively to the suspense. Bezos treads a very fine line and always manages to stay on the right side of showing us synchronicity in the details of the lives she describes. There's just a hint of the uncanny in 'Traps,' and it works to the novel's advantage.
Ultimately, 'Traps' captures a rough, authentic, American vibe, keeping readers riveted with the most essential and intense mystery that a great writer can summon — who are these people? Bezos makes us want to know from the beginning, makes every step of the journey, realistic, intense and compelling, and ultimately delivers a very satisfying whole.
'Traps' offers a lot of food for thought with its characters and their lives, but those aspects are subsumed into story, into a story that makes us care, that makes us want to know, makes us read. After finishing the book, when we do know, we want to read again, because the knowledge we now have has changed our perceptions. Even if, having read the book, we know every aspect of it, we still want to know how it feels to learn — now that we know.
New to the Agony Column
09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]