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Book Review

Journey of Self-Discovery With an Unexpected 'Angel' in the Wings

MISS GARNET'S ANGEL By Salley Vickers; Carroll & Graf, 352 pages, $25

March 13, 2001|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Miss Julia Garnet, spinster and retired schoolteacher, is set adrift from her moorings when Harriet, her London flat mate for 30 years, "the only person she ever ate with," suddenly dies. For the first time in her pinched life, Julia succumbs to a whim. She flies to Venice and rents an apartment for the off-season on a square named for the Archangel Raphael, who plays a major role in Salley Vickers' novel.

Julia and Harriet weren't lesbians, despite the rumors. Julia, at least, hasn't been kissed by anyone, nor has she ever encouraged such attentions. We expect this to change, finally, amid the beauty and romance of Venice. And it does, though not in the way we imagined.

"Miss Garnet's Angel" retells a story that seems to haunt the Northern European mind. The English fear that dank weather and inbred reserve have frozen them emotionally, though they hope it's a less-than-terminal condition that Mediterranean warmth can cure. The Germans (as in Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice") have a darker view: The cure may be worse than the disease.

In her opening chapters, Vickers, who is English, hews to form. She gives us a comedy of manners along the lines of E.M. Forster's "A Room With a View," combining in the single character of Julia the conflicting impulses Forster divided between his heroine and the duenna who would wall her off from life under the guise of protecting her.

Julia sips wine, eats seafood and crusty bread, soaks up art and music and color. She befriends her landlady and teaches English to a young boy named Nicco. She meets English twins, Toby and Sarah, who are restoring the 14th century Chapel of the Plague, the scene, reputedly, of earlier archangelic visits. She meets an ugly but learned and humorous priest and--as we knew she would--an elderly but handsome art dealer named Carlo, with whom she falls in love.

Then Vickers surprises us. It says something for English tastes that "Miss Garnet's Angel" rode high on the London bestseller lists last summer (just below the latest Harry Potter book, her publisher says), considering its structural oddities and the risks it takes. Julia's awakening, we discover, isn't sexual after all, but religious.

The contemporary story is interwoven with Vickers' adaptation of the biblical Book of Tobit, one of the apocryphal books excluded from the Protestant version of the Old Testament. It's a story of Jews exiled in Assyria. Tobias journeys to far-off Media to collect money owed to his blind father. Accompanying him is a faithful dog and a guide who is actually the archangel. Tobias takes a bride, Sara, after dog and angel drive out the demon that has killed seven of her previous suitors.

Tobias' progress toward a wider, more humane understanding is meant to parallel Julia's own journey, in which she encounters the same demon in modern forms. Carlo proves to be more attracted to Nicco than to her. The priest tells of saving Jews and art treasures from the Nazis, with whom some church leaders sympathized. The modern Sarah and Toby are bedeviled by the lies Sarah tells to justify a false accusation of sexual abuse, which caused her father's suicide.

But, like Tobias, Julia gets a glimpse of the angel who has been guiding her all along, and in a modest way she becomes an angel to others. Vickers' grasp of Julia's psychology, through much of this, is persuasive--though where Forster could be scrupulously fair even to people and philosophies he disapproved of, Vickers has Julia reject her old socialist beliefs, her former comrades and her homeland so coldly that we wonder if she's changed as much as she thinks she has.

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