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Yes, this seems like something completely different. I’m a discerner in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, and this novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, is on the reading list. It was Salley Vickers‘ debut, and tells two stories: one about Julia Garnet, a retired schoolteacher whose longtime friend and housemate, Harriet, has recently died, and the other, the Book of Tobit. Tobit is found in Catholic and Orthodox bibles, and in the Apocrypha in Anglican bibles, as well as in the Septuagint, which is the oldest translation (into Greek) of the Hebrew scriptures.

Julia decides to sublet her apartment and spend a few months in Venice. She is a British communist (like Vickers’ parents) with few friends and no living relatives. As her story unfolds, she comes out of her longtime shell and in a process of self-examination, socializing purely for enjoyment (rather than school functions or party meetings), and immersion in the art and music of Venice, she softens. And regrets the strictness that prevented her from being as kind as should could or should have been, and that has left her lonely.

One of the first things she sees in Venice is the facade of the Chiesa dell’Angelo Raffaele, and carvings of the Archangel Raphael with a boy carrying a fish, and dog in front of them. You can see it here. She later visits the church to view the art inside (including a series of paintings featuring this boy and his dog and the angel), and learns that the boy is Tobias, son of Tobit. A friend she meets, Carlo, tells her the whole story of Tobit, a Jewish exile in Nineveh, and Tobias, who cures Tobit’s blindness and saves his betrothed from a demon, with the help of the Raphael and a dog.

Vickers interweaves a retelling of the Book of Tobit alongside Julia’s story, and adds to the narrative of her personal growth some small mysteries Julia works out, about a painting in another church (Chapel-of-the-Plague), and about the English twins she meets there who are doing restoration work, as well as a mystery about her friend Carlo. It’s not a cozy novel — Julia’s self-reflection is painful at times, and the mysteries she deals with are as well. There are references to the plague years in Venice, to anti-Semitism, and to WWII. It’s not a light read. The story of Tobit is also on the surface just somewhat fraught. There is also a somewhat abrupt and bittersweet ending.

But there is a deep vein of truth running through both, and Julia’s transformation is ultimately uplifting, as is the story of the boy who with an angel’s help, overcomes evil. Vickers’ research shines through and is fascinating, without being “in your face” — it’s woven neatly into the story because Julia has an affinity for learning more about the things she is seeing from books and from friends (including an elderly Monsignor who is, like all of the supporting characters, interesting).

And there is a longing for meaning, for faith in something beyond humanity, something that surpasses the imperfect execution of ideals that Julia realizes she’s observed in British communism. I think that makes Miss Garnet’s Angel a timely read, despite the somewhat quaint circumstances of Julia’s life. As we look at the not-so-solid — in some cases actually crumbling — edifices of our ideals as they crack open to reveal the long history of willful ignorance on the part of many people and outright greed on the part of the powerful, don’t we too long for meaning, and healing, and love?

I enjoyed this and I will look for Vickers’ other books.

 

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