Monday, 10 November 2014

Angel Child by Valerie Bird, reviewed by Sandra Horn

If you're a lover of magical realism, this is the book for you. It has a cast of extraordinary characters whose stories interweave: 'This is a tale of many tales which link and twine, leap and twist; threads which ravel, plait and tangle, each strand a player.'
The stories open with Joannie the Birdwoman: 'Once upon a time there was an old woman with a face of flour, the dust of wheat pressed into every pore. She ran across fields with her white hair streaming out behind her like a wedding veil. Her coat was brown, her dress was ragged and torn with years and years of wear. Sprigged with jasmine, violets and daisies, it told of past summers' warmth even when the ground was rigid and unyielding to next year's growth.' Joannie had been born into a loveless marriage. Once, she had found the love of her life in Eva, a woman married to a man who was 'not empty or cold, he was a good father, yet Eva felt wooden and sad when lying against him.'  Her love affair with Joannie was sweet and intense, but short-lived, as Eva went back to her husband and child; Angela, the Angel Child.  Joannie, grieving, moved out of the loveless house she had been born in, built herself a nest of twigs and branches and a striped umbrella, and waited for Eva to return. She never did come back. She stayed with her husband and Angela, singing the little girl songs of loving and waiting, dancing with her caressing her, telling her wonderful stories - and yet Angela knew that her mothers' heart was elsewhere; 'She saw her watching for something else, a secret hope which sometimes lit her eyes and, in her loving hands Angela felt her mother's need for someone else. She hated her.' After Eva's early death, Angela set about trying to seduce her own father, but to no avail - and then killed him when he re-married. She was alone, then, until Seth the Balloon Man, whose fiery breath powered the hot-air balloon in which he was seeking his vanished father, crashed into her life...
Seth's and Angela's stories intertwines with those of Seth's mother and then a troupe of circus folk, each one with a special attribute or  a dark secret: Lula the fortune-teller who wears a rainbow round her shoulders like a daemon; Angela's daughter Miserere, Myra and her hall of mirrors, lovers Polo and Gary, Stephen, silent Pajaro. The theme running through all the stories is love. Agape and Eros. Love withheld, love misdirected, love distorted by loss, love with all its powers of destructiveness and healing. It's an amazing read - erotic, poetic, startling and not like anything I've read before. Highly recommended.