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Review: Miss Garnets Angel by Salley Vickers

miss garnets angel vickers Review: Miss Garnets Angel by Salley Vickers

For someone whose background involves copious amounts of Jungian psychoanalysis, its no surprise that Salley Vickers in her work so frequently touches on notions of the development of self, and on individual narrative journeys in order to reach a greater sense of consciousness and agency. While Vickers has in some of her work, such as the tremendously erudite'The Other Side of You (see our review),''done this by means of the presentation of a character whose main role is to act as a facilitator, other novels, such as her most recent, Dancing Backwards (see our review), have relied on more internally precipitative forces in order to do so. For Vickers, it seems as though such progressions can be afforded through the offerings of art, music, literature, and spiritual considerations, all of which have in common the fact that they require substantial intellectual and emotional engagement on behalf of a given individual. As such, Vickerss novels tend to be those of emotional and spiritual renaissance, in which an individual, or indeed several individuals, epiphanously unfurl into a degree of personal enlightenment, rather in the manner of a fern unrolling towards the touch of the sun. Miss Garnets Angel, Vickerss accomplished debut, epitomises perfectly this particular authorial proclivity.


When her long time friend Harriet passes away without warning, the abstemious Miss Garnet finds herself facing a void whose substance or raison de etre she is unable, perhaps on some level willingly, to fathom. As a torrent of existential torment threatens (albeit done away with with pragmatic huff), Miss Garnet finds herself fleeing to Venice, where she takes up residence in a homely apartment whose amenities scarcely extend beyond a battered pan for coffee and which is decorated in the tragic remains of her landladys glory box. But despite her efforts to the sort of anonymity she has so long enjoyed in London, Miss Garnet finds that her quiet, English ways serve only to make her conspicuous amongst the warm Venetian community and amidst the cultural richness of the famously romantic city. Miss Garnet, an individual whose worldview is cripplingly narrow and which relies upon vicariousness rather than personal experience, and who prefers to rely on the expounded theories and perceptions of others rather than engage with her own, finds that her newly public persona is a facilitating force when it comes to developing quaint and curious friendships, and to finding herself the subject of'a series of curiously circumspect encounters. Despite her naturally retiring ways, Miss Garnet, or Julia (meaning young), as we come to know her, begins to find that her most deeply, intransigently held conceptions in relation to herself and her place in life are perhaps resting on rather shaky foundations. Through a multi-pronged plot that intertwines with the ancient biblical tale of Tobias and the Angel, Vickers traces Miss Garnets slow but inevitable efforts towards personal realisation as she finds herself nested within a series of complex, ambiguous relationships and curious, inexplicable occurrences.

My thoughts

Miss Garnets Angel sits beautifully within Vickerss oeuvre, and the more of her work I read the better Im able to discern how her novels form a thematic (if not a narrative) series. Fortunately, given the fact that the continuity here is thematic, theres no issue with reading her work out of order, which is of course the path Ive apparently taken to her work.

Vickers delights in working with those characters who are so often overlooked both within fiction and within society: the quiet, the shy, the introverted, and given this, her choice of Miss Garnet as a protagonist is unsurprising. However, what is surprising is that while many others will conflate introversion and introspection, Vickers sidesteps this trope, giving us a character who is not only cut off from the world, but from herself, too. Her frugality of self is almost total, and she struggles to engage with anything that might have meaning or that may pose a threat to the face that she has so carefully established. Curiously, her lack of identity is so absolute that when pressed, she names herself by her (former) occupation as a history teacher rather than as an historian, the latter being, at least to Miss Garnet, far more intertwined with ones sense of self. Indeed, Miss Garnets sense of personal isolation is such that she even perceives of herself in the third person; it is some time until she becomes comfortable using her given (or perhaps Christian, given the themes of the book, and Miss Garnets self-professed agnosticism) name.

This inability to self-reflect or to challenge ones personal assumptions and conceptions of course extends through to Miss Garnets necessarily narrow social life: despite having considered the late Harriet a close friend, it is really only in death that Harriet begins to exert any great influence on Miss Garnets life. Miss Garnet, despite herself, travels with a giddily ostentatious hat that was once Harriets, and this prop becomes a substitute for her friend, offering Miss Garnet both comfort and a safe and unchallenging means by which she might at last engage with her erstwhile friend. The notion of a post-mortem friendship is curious, and speaks to the degree to which a person or a relationship can be so completely created or moulded by the mind of another. To me, the relationship between Miss Garnet and Harriet is perhaps the strongest element of the book, and Miss Garnets own realisations about the nature of the relationshipsuch as the magnanimity Harriet kept from her friend to avoid being seen as frivolousare often deeply moving.

Miss Garnets spiritual renaissance, of course, is also alluded to by the way in which her bigotry is slowly uncovered and dealt with: gender, class, and racial constructs come to the fore time and time again and are steadily dealt with as the narrative, and thus Miss Garnet, progresses. I do have some qualms about the way in which issues such as Miss Garnets virginal, love-less past and her cautious, frugal nature are dealt with through this spiritual awakening, and do find it somewhat confronting that it is, largely, spirituality that is highlighted as the key transformative force for Miss Garnet. Still, Vickers does not require of her character a transmutation from lead to gold or the like: rather, for the most part Miss Garnet largely remains herself, but simply a more weathered, self-assessing version of the same.

Perhaps the element of Miss Garnets Angel that worked least well for me was the counterpoint narrative, an account of the spiritual recovery of Tobit and Tobias that limns Miss Garnets own journey. While I appreciate the conceit, I felt that this secondary narrative devolved into confusion at some points, and at others was simply too neat and coincidental; the result of which was that these chapters felt rather smug and knowing, and detracted from the quiet beauty of the rest of the narrative.


As a debut outing, Miss Garnets Angel is beautifully accomplished, revealing the wit and perspicacity that is a hallmark of Vickerss fiction. Her depiction of Venice is outstanding, and her characters equally so, both of which together lends the book a sense of sincerity and groundedness that is needed given the pervasive themes of religion, spiritualism, and self-discovery. Its my feeling that the narrative would have benefited from a better integration (or excision) of the Tobit/Tobias secondary narrative, but I do appreciate Vickerss efforts in working with such a story.

Rating: star Review: Miss Garnets Angel by Salley Vickersstar Review: Miss Garnets Angel by Salley Vickersstar Review: Miss Garnets Angel by Salley Vickershalfstar Review: Miss Garnets Angel by Salley Vickersblankstar Review: Miss Garnets Angel by Salley Vickers

Purchase Miss Garnets Angel

See also our review of'Dancing Backwards

See also our review of The Other Side of You

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