From Nancy Huston, a Canadian writer who has lived in France for a couple of decades, comes a modest proposal in the form of a novel: maybe millennial fiction shouldn't look forward; maybe it should look back to the shames and sadness of the 20th century. The Mark of the Angel
, a bestseller in France, tells the story of Saffie, a young German girl who takes a job as a housekeeper in 1957 Paris. Her employer, a brilliant young flautist named Raphael, falls hard for her, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he finds her "impassive" and "impenetrable." Hard-eyed Saffie seems to sleepwalk through life and, as if in a dream, she and Raphael marry and have a son, Emil. When Raphael sends her off to have his flute repaired one day, he little suspects what he's setting in motion.
In András, the instrument maker, Saffie finds a damaged twin. Both are victims of the horrible experiment of Hitler's war: German Saffie has endured not only rape and torture but also the knowledge of her own family's Nazi sympathies. Hungarian Jew András has lost his family and his country. The two embody the horrors that Europeans visited on each other in the middle of the 20th century. They covertly embark on a five-year affair, during which their love comes to be sorely tested by the Algerian war for independence from France.
Huston's prose is cool, opaque, ironic and intensely romantic. Her style and her story both owe a great debt to Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a debt she seems to acknowledge explicitly: "Saffie is crushed, stifled, petrified by the ... how to put it ... the unbearable tenuousness of the moment ... Dizzy with inexistence, she clutches at András's arm--and he, misunderstanding, sets Emil down in a chair on the café terrace--turns to his lover--takes her in his arms and begins to waltz with her ... Ah! Thanks to András, the hideous unreality of the world has been held at bay once again, movement has turned back into true movement, instead of immobility in disguise." Kundera's preoccupation with Nietzsche's concept of the eternal return is clearly at work here too: the past, Huston warns us loud and clear, is never past. --Claire Dederer
"You may never read a novel crafted with more wonder and mystery than Nancy Huston's The Mark of the Angel. At once compelling and highly original, it probes not merely the characters' hearts and lives but the very nature of storytelling." -Arthur Golden, author of Memoris of a Geisha "Huston's language is beautiful, with startling juxtapositions of imagery.... Huston has made a chilling and beautiful work of art." -"Boston Phoenix" "Describing Nancy Huston's wonderfully provocative and enigmatic new novel as a tale of adultery in the dreary and uncertain Paris of 1957-1963 is to suggest that The Scarlet Letter is about infidelity and Moby Dick about whaling.... This is a superbly readable story spun with perfect ease and balance." -"The Providence Journal" "The writing style is almost tactile, like a dressmaker caressing a fine peice of silk or satin the better to show it off. Huston has a sensitive yet sure-handed grasp of her craft." -"Washington Times" "A brilliant, powerfully written novel." -"Rocky Mountain News" "At once [a] love story, war tale and psychological thriller....An engaging, intelligent novel." -"The Plain Dealer"