‘It was a life, but so distant from what I’d wished.’
A Quiet Belief in Angels is the story of the life of Joseph Vaughan and how much of his life is stolen away, how parts of the lives of others are stolen around him, and how lives are taken through the simple act of murder.
We first meet Joseph as a twelve year old boy in his home town of Augusta Falls in Georgia, in 1939 as he suffers the loss of his father and later, as he takes inspiration at school from his teacher, Miss Alexandra Webber. As she encourages Joseph to write – a craft in which he exhibits early promise – young girls, with whom he is acquainted at school, are killed. Joseph harbours the belief that death walks his way and that he knows it’s coming through the vision of a feather. It is partly because of this that he feels a responsibility towards the young girls: those lost and those who remain at risk. He wants to protect the living and seeks to do so with his young friends as they set up a group called ‘The Guardians’ to keep watch in the town.
The bulk of the novel is Vaughan narrating his own story as it developed, and as he understood it at the time. But, at the end of each chapter, we also have the narrator letting us know of the ‘now’ and what is the climax to come, when all is seen with sudden transparency, by him and by us.
A Quiet Belief in Angels is undoubtedly a clever novel of superlative storytelling, the rare type that can leave you wallowing in the beauty of it and also jealous that someone can have that level of skill. But when reading and enjoying this story, it’s also possible that a hunger develops to know of the dénouement: so, do try not to flick to the last pages. To deny is to increase the reading pleasure in this case.
Another outstanding facet of this novel is the fact that it’s set in the USA and with historical references. It reads with clarity, accuracy and integrity; all this from a UK-based author who has spent little time in the USA, especially before the writing of it. It really does read as totally authentic to time and place.
So, in conclusion, the writing is of literary quality (if we have to make the distinction); the story is one superbly told, with great intelligence; the characterisation and cultural settings are as deep and rich as a tapestry; the historical context reads as precise as a carefully researched academic tome. But what, above all, keeps you reading? It is the story that Joseph Calvin Vaughan has to tell you. And what a remarkable story it is.
A Quiet Belief in Angels (Orion) was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick in 2008 in the UK, but it’s the author R. J. Ellory’s first US publication: in early September 2009 with Overlook Press (available here). My thanks to Overlook Press in the USA for the copy.
For me, A Quiet Belief in Angels was a novel that far exceeded the hype it generated at the time of its Richard & Judy Book Club selection. Such words, I never thought I’d utter, but this is truly an excellent novel.