Book Review: The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson

The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson
Soho Press, 2012

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Readers already know the ending of The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson when they begin the story. That’s what happens when it’s based off historical events, the back summary describes those events, and the prologue reveals too much. We know the main character poisons men in her village, gets caught, and survives—though she doesn’t know how she managed it all.

But that’s the whole point: She doesn’t know. The readers are tasked to figure it out. This book was never about what happens—it’s about how it happens and why. Instead of providing readers with a twist or surprise ending, Gregson takes them on a long journey.

Sari, the main character who was branded as a witch and is a social pariah, becomes engaged to her cousin Ferenc soon before her father dies. Within months after her father’s death, Ferenc and the rest of the village men are called off to fight in World War I. This results in the women letting their guards down and easing into comfortable friendships. When Italian POWs arrive, most of the villagers begin to conduct affairs. After the husbands return broken or more abusive, their women search for an escape. Sari discovers that her sweet fiancé has turned into a controlling, paranoid man. This sparks the village poisonings that go on for years. For a while, the other women view death as an easy fix to life’s problems until a botched murder attempt.

The story is faithful to historical events in Nagyrév, Hungary, between 1914 and 1929. The main midwife Julia turns into Judit, and Susi turns into Sari, Judit’s apprentice and the clerk who signs death certificates. The method of creating arsenic is the same, as are the detections and criminal investigation methods. Gregson researched the incidents well and incorporated all of them, weaving together possibilities with facts.

Despite deaths and legal ramifications, there is no grand climax, and there isn’t meant to be. Life is composed of defining moments of intense conflict and mundane actions, as if it follows rolling hills. So instead of a dramatic accusation, the final conflict is quiet and gradual, almost to the point of anticlimactic. However, this quality of authenticity is hindered by most of the characters lacking depth.

Perhaps Gregson’s characters couldn’t evolve during the writing process because she tried to adhere so closely to historical facts. Thus, most of the villagers represent shallow archetypes and are dull, predictable plot points. It’s hard to care about any of them. There is the battered wife who is quiet but has great personality when she’s left alone long enough; the wizened crone whom everyone else fears, but is really a pushover; the war-torn fiancé; the abusing husband; the kind and worldly older Italian lover; and the snobby village queen bee.

Of those, the strongest characters are Judit and Ferenc. Judit is crude, cynical, and indifferent toward the villagers, but also honest and affectionate toward Sari. They are kindred spirits because they are both outcasts and deal in herb lore. Judit emits an air of experience to the extent that she no longer cares about life. She is an aged bottle of wine turned to vinegar.

Ferenc is a well-rounded dynamic character. The gradual alterations in his personality are fantastic. He begins sweet and caring, if a little consumed by hormones. Readers will begin to believe that he’ll take good care of Sari after they’re married, and he’ll treat her well and appreciate everything about who she is. And finally, someone in life other than Judit will want her. However, readers’ faiths in him begin to falter when he imagines Sari’s likeness above the battlefield—apart, untainted. He becomes obsessed with his idea of her; she becomes his salvation and sense of control. His disappointment after returning to her reality contributes to his downfall. When he comes home, he’s mentally and emotionally broken. He’s suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and he’s paranoid. He begins to doubt Sari and control everything about their lives.

An excellent moment of foreshadowing occurs before he beats her. Sari knows that something is wrong. She recognizes Ferenc’s tightening control over her, his loosening grip on himself, and his absolute need for her. Gregson writes:

“They are engaged, they will marry, and then she will be his. She would be just the tonic he needs, to build up his strength, to make him brave enough to leave the house, to reclaim his life again. It’s different, everything is different now, but she’s still his. She is still his” (151).

It seems as if this realization should have been reason enough to leave. However, Sari makes excuses and tries to ignore the warning signs. In fact, readers will recognize danger in this passage but to Sari, it represents a balm of excuses to soothe her growing concerns.

Then he beats her. Savagely. And for petty reasons. After he’s done, his condescending words almost drip poison from the page. If any character in this book is meant to evoke emotion or malice from the readers, it could be him; it’s a mark of good writing when a character pisses off a reader. And Gregson’s technique of including Sari’s name in Ferenc’s dialogue—like speaking to an unruly but punished child—is particularly effective.

Sair, however, is just plain aggravating. Readers may be able to sympathize with her situation, but not with her. She is methodical and clever, but her emotions are flat and distant. Sari seems to observe her world and choose what to react to. She is supposed to be aloof; instead, she is stiff and predictable, as if she is always under the author’s control. Again, this may be from adhering to historical events. There is little substance that makes the readers feel sympathetic toward her. Readers may react more with “All right, let’s see what you do next,” instead of “I can’t wait to learn what happens!”

When the beatings begin, suddenly every aspect of womanhood roars into the story. Initially, Sari becomes annoying because of submitting and making excuses so easily. But when Ferenc endangers her child’s life, she becomes herself. The strength that the narration always talks about surfaces and readers finally see what Sari is capable of doing. But it ends there and she soon returns to her old self.

This is where the third-person point of view has failed Gregson. The prologue is intriguing and beguiling, albeit a bit too revealing, because it opens with first-person narration. But its style sets a false stage for the rest of the book. When chapter one begins, the point of view shifts to third person. Readers are sucked away from the main character to watch as bystanders. It doesn’t matter how much the narration describes Sari’s thoughts and emotions, the readers cannot feel much because of the distance. Due to this and the prologue’s reveal of Sari’s survival, readers cannot feel invested in her character. Thus when she loses “all the vital, vibrant parts of her” (180), it doesn’t seem as disheartening as it could have been.

If that was the only point of view shift, Gregson could have been forgiven. However, it happens constantly. It jumps between characters, as if the camera looks over their shoulders for a few paragraphs before returning to Sari. Mostly this happens with appropriate section breaks and isolated paragraphs. But sometimes the shifts occur for a sentence or two in the middle of a steady section. This spins readers around, and they either falter at the abrupt and momentary change or continue reading with a mild sense that something indeterminate tilted that world. It is hard to tell if this tactic is intentional or if it reveals a faulty craft.

Overall, the novel represents well the victim’s state of mind and the progression of abuse, but in the end the characters are bland and unsympathetic, and the prose style is flawed. The result, unfortunately, is a novel that fails to engage us.


Filed under: Book Review, Nicole Bartley, Prose