Book Review: 'Angels of Destruction,' by Keith Donohue

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By Elizabeth Hand
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 10, 2009


By Keith Donohue

Shaye Areheart. 347 pp. $24

By day, Keith Donohue is the consummate Washington bureaucrat, toiling away in the National Archives. But when he's not approving grants for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, he's summoning strange, fey creatures for his marvelous novels. Donohue's first book, "The Stolen Child" (2006), was a surprise bestseller that recast Irish folklore in a mid-20th-century American setting. His new work, "Angels of Destruction," similarly finds the miraculous in the everyday by exploring the fissures that grief leaves in the life of Margaret Quinn, whose only child, Erica, left home at 17 and has not been seen since.

The novel opens on a bitterly cold night in 1985, when the now-widowed Margaret hears a knock at the door of her suburban home. She opens it to find a bespectacled girl in a ragged coat, half-frozen, a battered suitcase between her legs. The girl identifies herself as Norah, an orphan; but Margaret immediately imagines a different identity for her.

"On her fingertips, she calculated the years, thinking all the while of the possibilities. Her daughter had been gone for a decade, and the girl appeared to be just shy of nine. Old enough to be her own granddaughter, had such a child ever existed." Almost immediately, Margaret decides to pass the child off as Erica's, sent to live with her grandmother.

Sean Fallon, a boy bereft by his father's abandonment, befriends the peculiar new student in his third-grade class and agrees to keep secret that she is not really Margaret's grandchild. His devotion to Norah blooms into the perplexed, grateful adoration of a lonely 9-year-old boy, at once dogged and heartbreaking. But Sean soon witnesses strange manifestations of Norah's distinctly unchildlike talents: She folds origami cranes, then makes them fly; she blows smoke rings that would make Gandalf envious. More disturbingly, one night Sean glances into her mouth and sees a galaxy of stars. Their brief winter idyll is shattered when Norah begins speaking of -- and even demonstrating -- signs and wonders to her classmates.

The second part of "Angels of Destruction" flashes back to 1975. It shows the dissolution of the Quinn family as Erica falls in love with her high school sweetheart, Wiley. Erica's father (and Margaret's husband), Paul, steps from the shadows here. A doctor who served in the Army Medical Corps during World War II, Paul grows increasingly estranged from his daughter. Aflame with adolescent self-righteousness at what she perceives as her father's betrayal of his Hippocratic oath, Erica is drawn into an obsessive relationship with Wiley, and then into Wiley's own obsession with the Angels of Destruction, a group of West Coast radicals who fall somewhere between the Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army.

When Wiley decides to join the revolution, Erica goes with him on a surreal, violent journey reminiscent of David Lynch's "Wild at Heart." During a dreamy interlude along the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, the runaway lovers take refuge in a woodland cottage occupied by a grief-wracked, perhaps mad, old woman and her granddaughter, an otherworldly, bespectacled child named Una. Echoes and presentiments of Norah's relationship to Margaret and Sean unfold.

Part 3 returns to 1985, where the subtle linkings between past and future, grief and acceptance and, most of all, love in its myriad manifestations -- parental, sororal, sexual, divine -- converge and multiply in a remarkable, kaleidoscopic ending. In its depiction of a modern world where the inexplicable coexists with the commonplace, "Angels of Destruction" evokes many other works: Tony Kushner's "Angels in America"; films like Wim Wenders's "Wings of Desire" and Nancy Savoca's "Household Saints"; John Crowley's "Aegypt" tetralogy; Rilke's "Duino Elegies." Like the characters in these works, Margaret, Erica and Sean all entertain angels unawares. Or do they?

Donohue never quite reveals the mystery at the heart of Norah's sudden appearance, and that makes "Angels of Destruction" all the more satisfying and, yes, believable. Literary and historical clues are scattered throughout: references to the atomic bomb; a spectral man in fedora and camel-hair coat who pursues Norah and haunts Margaret; and an oblique nod to the Liber Juratus, a 14th-century manuscript containing a roll call of angels. The talisman that both Norah and Una pass on to those they love is a child's teacup with a chip in it, which invokes Auden's great poem "As I Walked Out One Evening": "The crack in the tea-cup opens/A lane to the land of the dead."

"Angels of Destruction" doesn't shrink from the tragedies and inevitable separations that dog us. The book's coda is beautiful and wrenching, yet still leaves its protagonists and readers open to the possibility that the miraculous, once glimpsed, might recur. "Love is not consolation, it is light," wrote Simone Weil. In these bleak times, we can thank Donohue for opening a door in a darkened room.

Hand's 10th novel, "Wonderwall," about the poet Arthur Rimbaud, will be published this fall.

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