The Failing of Angels is written in the first person – a grown man looking back on his childhood. This was not a happy time for him. From as young as he can remember he was aware his mother had wanted a girl baby and found the son she gave birth to tiresome and irritating. She wanted rid of him.
The mother berated her young son for his many perceived transgressions, insisting her husband beat him severely as punishment. Verbal reprimands were equally damaging, as was her indifference to his complaints about how he was being treated. Food was withheld and clothing limited or inappropriate.
School offered little respite as the boy resented the enforced incarceration. Early on he became a regular truant, his parents showing little interest in anything he did or said about this. He longed for his mother to love him but remembers only her antagonism or disinterest.
The narrative starts with the boy’s birth and proceeds through the years slowly. There is much analysis of the parents’ actions and attitudes – attempts to make sense of how they thought and acted. The mother is portrayed as cruel and narcissistic, the father detached and prone to violence – going along with his wife’s wishes without question. The detail of their abuse makes for painful reading.
“I became achingly aware of an extraordinarily irrepressible and fantastically resilient natural facility I have for saying precisely the most inappropriate thing at exactly the least opportune moment”
There is also an undercurrent of how reliable the narration is given hints of the boy’s precociousness and then burgeoning flamboyancy. Occasional references to parental gifts suggest the father was not entirely uncaring or vicious.
The mother is staunchly religious and tries to inculcate her son in order to exert control – to silence and subjugate. The presence of an all seeing god is regarded by the boy as threatening.
“I felt surrounded on all sides by some paranormal paparazzo”
The story is a slow burn rather than a page turner. The writing style utilises repetition, employing many words rarely encountered in creative fiction. It took some time to segue with the cadence. While not hard to understand, the verbosity and linguistic gymnastics did at times become tiring – and this from a reader who generally enjoys such an approach in writing.
The pacing picks up when the boy reaches his teens and gains greater independence. By this time his mother has a new project demanding her attention, one that meets with remarkable if disturbing success but brings to the fore how unhinged she is. These parallel plot lines add some welcome tension.
There is still much foreshadowing and commentary with the author playing with language more than progression. There are occasional digressions from the vituperative maternal memories to the boy’s own activities as a teenager – including remarkably ordinary interests in music and literature that he enjoyed with friends. When he falls in love, he suffers few of the trials associated with the lack of experience and jittering confidence more typical of one his age. I pondered if he could have inherited his mother’s narcissism.
The denouement unfolds with elements of tragedy and comedy. Along the way there are opportunities to skewer many revered institutions. The church establishment in particular is portrayed in all its hypocrisy. This was neatly interwoven with the unfolding action.
Did I enjoy this book? The characters were rather too caricatured for my tastes. While the writing style may be clever it seemed done almost for the sake of it. The bleakness of the abuse, the perfection of the girlfriend and her family, the gullibility of the mother’s acolytes – all are possible but lacked depth and nuance. I remain unconvinced of the narrator’s veracity.
There are frequent references to the importance of words throughout. For those who enjoy plays on language, this may be a worthwhile read. As a social commentary there is much to consider. As a story, it left me cold.
The Failing of Angels is published by Avalanche Books.