Angelology, by Danielle Trussoni
I read Angelology when I was sick with the second nasty cold of the season, with a cough that felt like someone was yanking my lungs out through my chest. That may have colored my reaction to this book.
Danielle Trussoni is a highly educated and well established non-fiction writer with an award-nominated memoir under her belt already. She has a degree in history and an MFA in creative writing. She puts both of those degrees to use in this book. When she is drawing on history, the book comes to life.
I should say that I tend to be biased against writers who come out of MFA programs. Maybe it’s just reverse snobbery, but it seems to me that they have learned to write exquisite paragraphs but don’t always have a good sense of story, or, if they have a story, plot is nearly impossible for them to master. Trussoni has a story and a plot here, and, to be fair, it’s an interesting one, even if it isn’t terribly fresh. Trussoni postulates that hybrid human-angels, called Nephilim, exist in the world, hiding in plain sight among humans, and that they are the cause of most of the evil humans endure. They are manipulators and tempters, nurturing the bad in humanity for their own selfish ends. A secret society of angelologists studies them, battles them, and tries to undermine their evil schemes. Lately, since the 20th century at least, things have not been going so well for the home team.
Against this historical backdrop the reader meets Evangeline, a young nun in an unusual convent in New York’s Hudson Valley. Evangeline, who works in the convent library, discovers a series of letters from Abigail Rockefeller, letters that imply that an historical artifact of great significance was hidden at or near the convent. At the same time, Verlaine, a PhD student working on his thesis, making a living doing research and some art appraisals, becomes aware of the letters as well. Verlaine is working for a man named Grigori, a name that will immediately tip off fantasy readers or anyone who has read supernatural thrillers about angels.
Grigori and his family live like successful Mafiosi in a palatial New York penthouse, but Grigori is suffering from a debilitating and fatal infection peculiar to the Nephilim. He believes that the artifact will cure him.
The story moves through time, with several references to 1940’s Paris and a secret expedition to Bulgaria, when the artifact, a celestial musical instrument, is found. Evangeline is reminded that her mother and father were both angelologists, and that her mother was abducted and murdered by the Nephalim. Evangeline, a nun, always wears a golden pendant in the shape of lyre around her neck, a gift from her grandmother at her mother’s funeral. Gabrielle, her grandmother, is a powerful angelologist with an historical connection to the Grigori clan.
In order to make the book work, Trussoni had to set it in 1999, yet she uses expressions not in use during that decade at all. Similarly, it should seem odd to the reader that a nun is allowed to wear a bright piece of jewelry that is not a cross. As it turns out, it is not odd, once we discover the truth of the convent. What’s odd is that Evangeline has never questioned this. In the first chapter, Evangeline gets a letter, requesting access to the convent archives, signed “V.A. Verlaine.” Without a second’s hesitation, she replies to “Mr. Verlaine,” with no thought about whether the writer is male. He is male, but we never know his first name and no one ever asks him. He is Verlaine throughout the book. No one finds this strange.
The book drags in sections, mostly because Trussoni provides information about The Watchers, the original rebel angels. Gabriella tells us that the angelologists are not interested in The Watchers, but Trussoni clearly is.
A large portion of the book takes place in the 1940s, from the point of view of Celestine, an angelologist and nun. The book is at its most vivid and convincing, even if predictable, during this section. Descriptions of Montparnasse are vivid, rooted in sensuous detail that includes scent and tactile descriptions. Celestine’s depiction of the expedition to a place called The Devil’s Throat, and what they find in this subterranean chasm, is chilling and wonderful.
In the last quarter of the book, Trussoni tries to power up her thriller with a mix of puzzle-solving, New York travelogue, and action. She is moderately successful, but the pacing of the book, repetitions, and the long, long sections of talking heads, with everyone speaking in paragraphs and expositing things they already knew, made me twitchy and irritated. They leave the reader with too much time to think. The book adequately wraps up the plot with no true surprises and sets the stage for future books (the second one is called Angelopolis).
For a supernatural thriller, set in the real world, the stakes are very high for the writer, and they must invite the reader into their world view quickly and with no missteps. Showing us a young nun wearing a golden Lyre of Orpheus in the first six pages of the book and not explaining it is a misstep. Failing to identify the gender of the letter writer is a misstep, although a tiny one. Far later in the book, having Verlaine say, “I’m an overeducated, left-of-left, soy-latte-drinking, borderline-metrosexual liberal agnostic,” in 1999, while amusing, is a misstep. Creating doubts in the plausibility of your supernatural world is a difficult mistake to overcome.
Trussoni’s prose is clear and her repeated descriptions of the Hudson Valley and the river are gorgeous. Her vision of the convent and the attached chapel is wonderful. Finishing Angelology made me want to find her non-fiction book Falling Through the Earth. It does not make me want to read Angelopolis.
For me, this book suffers in comparison to John Connolly, an Irish writer who writes supernatural thrillers about Nephalim. Connolly is firmly based in commercial fiction, not a literary writer at all. When I read about Trussoni’s Nephalim, I roll my eyes. When I read Connolly, I believe and I shiver.