Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Angelica by Arthur Phillips

When I picked up Angelica by Arthur Phillips, I was expecting a ghost story. Who doesn't love a ghost story? I got a ghost story, for sure, but it was so much more than that.

Reading the book jacket, I learned the story would be told four times by a different character. I was a little worried about it being boring, but it was like the game you play in middle school where you whisper something to the person next to you, and they whisper it to the person next to them, and on and on, until it reaches the last person--who's usually told something dramatically different than the original statement.

Angelica takes place in Victorian England and chronicles the marriage of Constance and Joseph Barton and life with their 4-year-old daughter, Angelica. The book begins with Constance's story--the ghost story. Strange things begin happening when Joseph demands that Angelica no longer be allowed to sleep in a bed at the foot of theirs. She's moved into her own room, much to Constance's dismay, and it's really difficult to explain the myriad events that occur from that point on.

Without giving too much away, Constance and Joseph's marriage begins falling apart fast, with Joseph portrayed as an abusive husband who believes Constance should perform her "wifely duties," even though another pregnancy would surely kill the frail woman. To avoid this, Constance finds every excuse to sleep in Angelica's room--the biggest excuse being some sort of demonic entity that takes on the appearance of Joseph. Constance discovers that whatever plays out between her and Joseph is eventually played out by the entity. Confusing, I know.

The story is then told from the point of view of Anne Montague, the former actress turned ghost hunter hired by Constance to rid the Barton house of the paranormal activity. In Anne's version, you find out she's not who she says she is, and she believes the "paranormal" activity is Constance's way of coping with Joseph's allegedly inappropriate relationship with his daughter.

The story then shifts to Joseph, and after the way he was portrayed in the previous tellings, I was certainly looking forward to this one. Was Joseph an abusive husband and father? Was he really connected to the entity tormenting Constance and Angelica? Was there an entity at all--or was Constance simply going crazy? Or is she pretending to go crazy as a means of getting rid of Joseph? This is another one of those books that turns everything you thought you knew on its head. Believe me, by the time I finished Joseph's version of the story, I didn't have a clue what I knew. But it's not one of those books you want to abandon due to confusion. (That's a category reserved for Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, which I'll get to eventually...)

I couldn't wait to get to the final story: Angelica's. Told from her point of view as an adult writing things down for a psychiatrist, you learn the truth--or is it the truth? I won't tell you the bombshell Angelica drops, other than to say it has to do with Constance's relationship with her father and its effect on her as an adult.

By the time you finish reading Angelica, you realize it's not a ghost story after all. It's about how we remember things from our past. Each one of the accounts is recreated by Angelica herself, calling into question the reliability of the narrator.

It makes me wonder about the stories we tell about our own lives. What do we omit or add and why? Do we accurately portray the people in our lives, or do our feelings about them or a particular event change our version of the truth? When we are asked to tell something about who we are to a stranger, do we tell the truth? Do we make ourselves seem a little more popular, intelligent, or successful than we really are in order to make a good impression? Do we leave out parts of a story that make us look weak or dim-witted?

Another question raised by Angelica has to do with age and memory. If Angelica was only 4 years old when these events played out, how much could she accurately remember?

If you're looking for a plain vanilla ghost story, you won't be happy with Angelica. The book is meant for those interested in a psychological thriller, those who believe memories can sometimes be more frightening than other worldly beings.

(If the subject of how we remember past events interests you, a book I read earlier this year with a similar theme was The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits. It was a good read, but slower and not as gripping as Angelica.)

Disclosure:  I borrowed Angelica from the library.


Serena said...

there is this opaque reference to the Golden Notebook....AHEM I AM STILL WAITING!

This Angelica books sounds interesting; your review reminds me of sea glass and the multiple points of view for the same story...very interesting indeed.

Anna said...

Oooh, Sea Glass is on my soon-to-read list. Now I can't wait.

Yes, the Golden Notebook is next on my list of book reviews. I've been avoiding it for awhile because I want to make sure I get my points across without bashing it. LOL

Bethany said...

This book sounds great, I love subtle books. Where did you get it from? Is it available at Barnes and Nobles. I just ask because I spent all weekend running around Salt Lake City looking for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte and no one had it!!! Can you believe that? How can you not carry Anne Bronte and now I am late for the Knit A Long!! Ugh, but great review!

Seradee said...

Hi Anna! I missed reading your blog while I was on vacation! :) How was your camping trip? Good, I hope. The weather was great for us except for one night while we were in Lancaster: there was a tornado warning and one spotted a few towns up from us. That's not fun when you're in a trailer!! (Pete and I took my grandparents trailer so we could have our kitties with us).

I miss you!!

Anna said...

I wonder if that was the same day we had tornado warnings my way. They said one touched down two towns away from where I live. That's pretty scary.

Camping was fun. Maybe some time we could all go camping together!

I miss you, too!