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The Grateful Living,
This review is from: Miss Garnet's Angel (Paperback)
This novel follows approximately eleven months in the life of Miss Julia Garnet, from the Feast of Epiphany to the Feast of Raphael. Her friend, Harriet, has just died suddenly. With her habits already shaken up by the death of her companion, Julia decides to rattle them even further by jetting off to Venice, to enjoy the kind of holiday that Harriet had been planning for their joint retirement from teaching. Miss Julia Garnet is a Communist who's never been kissed, so it's something of a surprise to see her falling in love, and to learn of her abounding interest in an angel.
At first glance, this is a Death in Venice/Don't Look Now kind of book. Carlo, the man for whom Julia falls for big time, turns out to be quite an apocryphal character, in the modern meaning of the word. Thankfully, Harriet wasn't in the habit of wearing lurid red anoraks, and Salley Vickers' new novel, The Instances of the Number 3 also opens with a death. However, Julia does encounter the twins who are restoring the Chapel-of-the-Plague (which Salley Vickers seems to have invented for the novel), similar to the sort of work carried out by Donald Sutherland's character in Don't Look Now. However, there is the scene where Julia abandons her guidebook by the Reverend Crystal in St. Mark's Basilica (a reference to A Room with a View perhaps?), and this is where she meets Carlo for the first time. St. Mark's Basilica is very beautiful, but as Carlo tells Julia, all the art has been nicked from other cultures and appropriated by the victorious Venetians of past history. One could say that Salley Vickers has gone about doing the same thing (especially with regards to her new novel), yet there is a more apt simile to describe what she is doing here. Like Gianantonio Guardi, Salley Vickers could be said to be borrowing poses or motifs from other artists, but she recasts them in her own vivid manner (to paraphrase Emil Kren and Daniel Marx's description of Guardi's painting 'The Angel Appears to Tobias'). The quotes that Salley Vickers uses in this novel always seem appropriate, and always seem to be leading somewhere, whereas the quotations in The Instances of the Number 3 seem forced and appropriated. Although I thought there could be more behind Salley Vickers' naming Julia's school as 'St Barnabas and St James'. There's a thread throughout the novel concerning St Mark, who let down St Barnabas and St Paul by returning home early from one of their first journeys, and I couldn't see a link between St Barnabas and St James. Towards the end of the novel, Julia traces Tobias's journey on a map. In so doing, she's conveying the importance of such journeys, to our common history and our own personal development. For interested readers, I've created a page concerning the cultural context of this novel.
We are invited to see Julia as several archetypal figures. She could be Saint Ursula, watched over by the Angel Raphael as in the cover picture of the book, cropped from a painting by Carpaccio (although it's hard to see her pupils following her anywhere willingly, especially not to a massacre, since they tend to regard her as a joke and sing rude songs about her). She could be the legendary traveller of the folk story of the Grateful Dead, as embodied by the dramatisation of the Book of Tobit within the novel. Or she could even be the embodiment of the Angel Raphael himself ('You must be my guardian angel,' Toby says at one point). Although, to see Miss Garnet as the Angel is to play the tricks with the title of the book that don't work in the same way that 'Finnegans Wake' could mean any number of things. Certainly, Julia feels that the Angel Raphael is watching over her, if only in the form of a statue. To some, the ending of the book may come as something of a surprise. It did to me the first time, I'm afraid to admit. But when you dig deeper into Salley Vickers' research, you cannot avoid a deep sense of foreboding.
Salley Vickers has managed to whip up everything she can think of about Venice into this book. John Ruskin invites Julia out to consume some prosecco (if nothing else), Tintoretto pops in for tea, the House of the Camel really lights up to illuminate William Blake, Vivaldi lectures, and Shakespeare puts on some plays. However the Venice ghetto does not really provide a refuge for Julia, but may have done some time in the past for the sparkling Monsignore and his pug dog. Whilst reading Tucker Malarkey's An Obvious Enchantment recently, I did kind of wonder what the links between Christianity, Judaism and Islam were, and Malarkey missed the (now) obvious source of monotheism: Zoroaster was the first prophet to call for the worship of one true God (rather than Akhenaten). This isn't hacked onto the text by Vickers: it's a natural growth throughout the novel, from the gifts of the three Magi celebrated in the Epiphany, to the Feast of the Apocryphal Raphael. Just as Venice seems to be in peril, so do the Zoroastrians, with ever declining numbers predicted. One gets an indication of how intricately plotted this novel is by the revelation that there was a Fair Maiden on the Zoroastrian Bridge of Separation. Salley Vickers magnificently bridges Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism via her dramatisation of the Book of Tobit (and her translation of the tale is a tad bit more successful than Saint Jerome's, despite all it's tail wagging). And what better place to build bridges than Venice?