Miss Garnet's Angel had the rare distinction of becoming a best seller without being hyped. When it was published in 2003, its popularity spread by word of mouth, via bookclubs etc. Why did this happen? My guess is that the title helped. In this materialistic age, people are drawn to stories about angels, because they yearn for a spiritual dimension to life. This is certainly what drew me, and I wasn't disappointed.
On one level, it's an enjoyable story about an interesting, sympathetic main character, who is challenged by a bereavement and a love affair to find new ways to engage with life. For the most part the character is well-drawn and believable, though there are some inconsistencies. One is the description of Julia Garnet dressed for her flight in a long tweed coat and a hat with veil: this had me wondering if this twenty-first century novel were set in the 1950s (the last time I saw veiled hats, on the more old-fashioned of my mother's acquaintances!) I later discovered that the author owns such a hat, and wears it in Venice, but I stand by my opinion. Miss Garnet's age is also puzzling: recently retired at the beginning of the story, she cannot be older than sixty-six at the most (not enjoying her job, I would have thought she'd have left it earlier). Her companion Harriet was a similar age: so they both, a little improbably, appear to die unluckily young. But these are minor points.
On another level, the novel deals with what we think of as the supernatural. It does so with skill and complexity: Miss Garnet's 'Angel' is not of the New Age, easy-touch, over-the-counter lucky charm variety. He is Raphael: age-old and ageless healer, succour to those who grapple with the forces of evil, promoter of 'courage, truth, mercy and right action'. He is demanding: the path along which he guides his protégée is at times harsh: but it leads to a happy ending.
This novel is not simplistic "feel good" pap that follows a prescribed moral formula and tells the reader what to think. It stimulates the reader to imagine what more there may be to life than the physical body and world. It raises possibilities and encourages us to think outside the box, and engages our emotions in the process.
Is the 'Angel' meant to be 'real'? Or is he only in Julia's head? That depends on what you conceive reality to be. (Page 88: ‘Oh dear, thought Julia pouring herself another cup of straw-coloured tea. What is, after all, the real world? I wish I knew.’) If you are a materialist, it may seem to you that Miss Garnet has an over-active imagination at best; at worst, her marble collection is incomplete. You might be more comfortable understanding the angel as a metaphor, perhaps for Julia's unconscious mind, which is trying to bring matters to her attention. But then, could the unconscious mind be linked, as Jung believed it was, to the collective unconscious, with all its divine and demonic potential?
I'm with Albus Dumbledore, who told Harry Potter when the latter had a near death experience and asked whether it was "real" or "happening inside my head": "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry. But why on earth should that mean it is not real?" (J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).
If you are willing to see human life as part of 'the Vast' (as Tobias expresses it on page 251), and individual consciousness as a tiny island in an infinite sea of psychic life, you will appreciate the richness of this book, and you will love it. If not, read it anyway: you may change your mind.
Miss Garnet did.
Times Literary Supplement: "This enjoyable, multilayered novel contemplates existential themes – religion, life, death and love and the ways in which these themes are juxtaposed insists on the harmonious closure which is achieved in both narratives."
Sunday Times: "Rich, complex and haunting"
John Julius Norwich: "Beautifully and brilliantly controlled. A triumph"
Atlantic Monthly: "Cleverly weaving her graceful rendition of The Book of Tobit, from the Apocrypha, through the main narrative, Vickers gives Miss Garnet’s revelations a weighty universality and timelessness. Although she is as clear-eyed and unsparing as Pym and Brookner when assessing her characters’ limitations, Vickers’ vision of human possibility is coloured by hope."
Oxford Times: "What begins as a beautifully-written, gentle tale of a woman coming to life, slowly deepens into something more intriguing as Vickers takes up issues of good and evil, sexuality, religion and belief. Just as one can happily wander the streets of Venice until one finds oneself lost and fear sets in, the reader is lulled by her artful prose – until ensnared."
The Tablet: "Salley Vickers’ subject is one that few contemporary writers dare to – or are able to – tackle, namely the growth of consciousness of the human spirit. The novel has vision."
Martyn Goff, New Statesman: "As administrator of the Booker Prize for the past 30 years I am often asked whether I agreed with the judges of the year, or what I would have chosen ... Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnet’s Angel ... is easily the best novel that I have read in 2000 ... you watch Miss Garnet utterly changed in character and personality, and you marvel at how all this has been achieved, together with a depth of knowledge and projection of the story from the Apocrypha. It is also one of the best pictures of Venice I have come across."
Publishing News Books of the Year: "Miss Garnet’s Angel is one of those books you want to re-read the minute you finish it ... beguiling and immensely satisfying."