Ian Mond Reviews The Angels of L19 by Jonathan Walker

The Angels of L19, Jonathan Walker (Weather­glass Books 978-1-838-01813-9, £10.99, 240pp, tp) August 2021.

Jonathan Walker’s The Angels of L19 is the second offering from newly established small press Weatherglass Books. Founded by Da­mian Lanigan and Neil Griffiths, Weatherglass is part of the vanguard of micro- and small publishers, including Galley Beggar Press, Sublunary Edi­tions, Tramp Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Boiler House Press, and Influx Press, breathing life into a publishing industry where mergers and consoli­dation threaten to drown out diverse, innovative, and ambitious work. Weatherglass says as much on their website, with a mission statement that seeks to provide a space for “core literary fiction” that is “merely excellent” and, as such, is likely to be ignored by major publishers. The Angels of L19 certainly fits the brief. It’s not only a merely excellent, even tremendous novel, but the book’s frank attitude to evangelical Christianity and faith and its blend of gritty realism and nightmarish horror would undoubtedly make it a hard sell for a mainstream press.

Set in 1984, the novel toggles between two teenagers, Robert and Tracey, who live next door to each other – Robert with his Aunt and Uncle, Tracey with her Dad – in the Liverpool district of Garston (postal code L19). Most evenings, after Tracey has returned from youth group, she knocks on the common wall between their bedrooms, and together they mouth the words to U2’s album Un­der a Blood Red Sky. Besides their close proximity and a love for Bono, they are connected by a shared grief – they have lost their mothers – and a shared faith – they are born again Christians, members of the Brethren evangelical church. Tracey, a year older than her neighbour, has always been protec­tive of shy, awkward Robert. Since he gave his heart to Jesus the previous summer at Christian Youth Camp, though, Tracey has noticed changes in him. “He’s different,” she says to Mark, the lo­cal youth leader. “He has these gaps. Seems to go somewhere else.” What Tracey doesn’t know, what Robert refuses to tell her or anyone else, is that he is visited by two angels. The first he dubs the Pres­ence, a mostly benign force with a body of ivory, “at other times wax. Always hairless, smooth. No articulations or openings, apart from a bubbled vertical slit in the centre of its head, like the line of glue on the wallpaper”. The second entity is far more malevolent. It takes the shape of a naked girl – “hair shaved, skull too big for her head” – with “crescents of blood where her teeth meet her gums,” who promises Robert the resurrection of his mother, provided he sacrifices Tracey.

The Angels of L19 is a novel of competing tones. For the first third of the book, Walker pres­ents us with an unvarnished but evocative depiction of Thatcher’s England. Against the backdrop of the miners’ strike, there’s regular talk of labour disputes and industrial action, while the Falklands War is embodied (literally) in the scar tissue across the arms of youth leader Mark. Because the main characters are teenagers, we get a good dose of the music and films of the period, including an amusing exegesis of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits with its “theologically orthodox conclusion.” Even the appearance of Robert’s angels, while strange and disturbing, can be explained as the manifesta­tion of a young man’s anguish at the death of his mother. That is until we reach Chapter 9. Walker abruptly switches tracks and eschews realism for an extended, phantasmagoric dream sequence (or is it?) experienced by both Robert and, importantly, Tracey. It’s an astonishing, terrifying piece of writing that completely upends our assumptions about Robert’s visions, but also the type of novel we’re reading.

I, of course, loved Walker’s sudden switch from the quotidian to the supernatural. Not just because it’s an audacious move (which it clearly is) but because this clash of styles plays cleverly into the novel’s themes about religion and faith. For Robert and Tracey, their belief in Jesus is meant to comfort them, to provide a bulwark against the tragedy of losing a mother. But as Tracey comes to realise, whether it’s Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac or Joan of Arc burning to death for heresy, the faith­ful must also “endure the love of God too.” Tracey, to some extent, can accept this contradiction, but Robert, despite all the scripture he quotes and the questions he asks, tragically never reconciles the God of love and forgiveness with the God who expects His faithful to suffer in His name. While Walker is careful not to draw any facile conclusions about religious belief, in straddling between the real and the unreal, the mimetic and the fantastic, he brilliantly lays bare the struggles of two teenag­ers striving to find meaning and comfort in a world increasingly overburdened by misery and despair.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

This review and more like it in the August 2021 issue of Locus.

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