Miss Garnet’s Angel

Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers. Harper Collins, London, 2000.  342 pps.  £12.99.

Impelled into action by the unexpected passing of her closest and only friend, Harriet, the staid retired teacher, Miss Julia Garnet, lets her London flat and goes to Venice, renting a small apartment in the Campo Angelo Raffaele for six months.  Thus opens Salley Vickers’ quiet, rich, benign and gentle novel,  Miss Garnet’s Angel.

There, Venice–la Serenissima–city of bridges, barges, campaniles, Renaissance art and palaces, of beauty, Christianity, sublimity and light begins to transform Miss Garnet’s closed, dark, and frightened life.

She, a severe atheist and Communist, surrounded by chapels and churches, by images of piety and prayer, of Madonnas and child, and particularly of angels–of Raphael, the patron angel of Venice and all travellers–finds herself, without meaning to, setting out on a transforming journey into the Bible, learning the value of spiritual vision in a grossly material and atheistic world:  “This is a tragic phase of civilisation, Julia thought, where we are ashamed to be found to pray.”

Yet this is only one facet of this story of men and angels, for this tale of Miss Garnet’s inadvertent spiritual quest is interwoven with the retelling of another, the story of Tobit and Tobias from the Apochrypha, wherein Tobias is guarded, cared for and led by the Archangel Raphael into a distant land to restore his father’s fortunes, to marry, and ultimately to restore his father’s sight.

The characters of this impressive novel are a particular strength.  Miss Garnet is one of the world’s quiet people, having gone through life unnoticed and dismissed, without the fanfare and clamour which throng the media and which so many now demand for themselves, a contemporary ‘everyman’ for those who have never sought the limelight.

The others she encounters–an art dealer, an American professor and his wife, a scholarly priest, a set of twins restoring a Mediaeval chapel–are depicted with articulate and generous care.  Equally, the faithful Tobit, the young Tobias and the compassionate and wise Azarias (the human form taken by the Archangel), are given a timelessness, humour and clarity which span the millennia separating us.

Though brilliant with refracted and reflected light, Vickers’ Venice–a character surely in its own right–is never garish.  Like the subtle and pure colours of the Renaissance artists’ palette–rose, grey, ultra-marine and gold, oro and oro pallido–Vickers used a palette of exquisite prose, painting images of Venice with words, of liquiescence and illumination, of angelic glory penetrating the dark hollows of timidity, fear and dissimulation.

Miss Garnet’s Angel is novel-writing at its finest and most eloquent.  It is that splendid composite of linguistic style, erudition, wit, observation, plot, character, and wisdom which include and encompass so much truth that it continues to speak, to resonate, long after the covers have been closed, casting, effortlessly like angels or sunlight upon Venice’s rippling waterways, brightness and beauty into those private and most shadowed recesses of the human heart.

(This review first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)