As someone who has been greatly inspired by Peter Kreeft's writings and lectures, I was naturally intrigued when I learned about the publishing of his only "novel". So I waited patiently in anticipation of its release by St. Augustine's Press. And I waited. And then I waited some more... Then, beyond all hope, it arrived!
I am generally hesitant to post book reviews on Amazon (an act of mercy?). However in this case, as no one else has written a review, I feel obliged to break with convention and write a few words. This book deserves it. As the publisher has noted, "This is the damndest novel you'll ever read." This is not hyperbole. The publisher meant it, and so does this reviewer. "An Ocean Full of Angels" is like no other novel I have read, and on that account I hesitate to call it a "novel". All the better. As the subtitle suggests, it is more a collection of musings and autobiographical writings by the main character, a noble but proud young American Muslim named 'Isa Ben Adam.
Through 'Isa's collected writings, a plot unfolds, and a pattern emerges: waves. The "waves" approach one after the other peaking with key events and decisive action, in between troughs of apparent calm. This pattern is the steady ebb and flow of fate in a vast ocean of causes in which everything is ordained and interconnected. The footsteps of destiny approach steadily like waves on the surface of the water produced by the stirrings of some unseen hand. Creation is deep and mysterious, and it is filled with untold wonders, dangers and beauties. Behind every event in time and space, every apparent "coincidence", there are unseen forces at work. Behind the curtain that is a thin veil between worlds, angels and demons clash in the cosmic warfare between good and evil. The repercussions have a real effect in this world that is as sure as gravity---nay, surer. Whose hand is it that weaves the tapestry? Who is the conductor behind this great music?
The Providential workings of the Creator come into view through the progression of this book, and are tied together in the end. It is clear that ultimately one Hand holds the ends of the strings, and even evil is permitted so that a greater good may come by it (I recall the sage words: "Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker."). Kreeft shows this principle in action, as the connections between the many themes and characters in this book come into view.
My first impression? Gold. With each chapter, pearls of wisdom and beauty are strewn ashore, to be gathered by those who will. The style is both philosophical and poetic; it is at times low key and at others bombastic---and on the whole it is quite moving. This is Kreeft's philosophy of life distilled to its essence and made to come alive through the charachers, the story and the setting. "An Ocean Full of Angels" draws upon the legacy of such writers as G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, among others. It is imbued with the same spirit, and it is truly a breath of fresh air in comparison to the noxious worldview we must reckon with in these dismal times. It is his own attempt at re-mythologyizing, and re-cultivating a sense of wonder at the beauty and mystery of the world.
Yet the characters, the setting and the story are not just means for communicating Kreeft's philosophy. They serve this purpose, it is true, but much more than this, they come alive! I will make no guarantees, as each person will bring his or her own perspective into the experience of reading this book. But if you are at all like me, you will be captivated by this book; you will care about its characters; you will be fascinated and drawn in by the story; you will fall in love with the setting---and be moved the worldview behind it all. It will surprise you, and it may very well irritate a few raw nerves.
There is no doubt about it, this book is different. It is a fictional autobiography told---by a Catholic philosopher---through the eyes of a devout young American Muslim living on the outskirts of The Hub of the Universe: Boston! (my own neck of the woods). It breaks many literary conventions, and it is not "neat". To be sure, there are plenty of passages that are as poetic and profound as anything I have read. But there are also many others that are delightfully odd. If you thought the chapers in "The Fellowship of the Ring" about the journey through the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs were superfluous to Tolkien's story, you may not like parts of this book. But if you love Tom Bombadil---or Tolkien, or Chesterton, or Lewis---you will probably love this too. Some of the connections made in the plot may seem a bit forced, but I think this is the point: it is not mere coincidence at work here. If this is a put-off, it is only because we expect our fiction to be more orderly than reality.
So why "only" four stars? Simple. I am not confident enough in my own literary judgment to rate this work among the classics by giving it five. I would not do this book a disservice by giving a cheap rating. This is a profound and moving---if unorthodox---book, by a highly respected and influential Catholic thinker of our time. If you are like me, then you will greatly enjoy this book, and will be rewarded by repeated re-readings, which in itself is telling. There is a lot to digest here.