Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers was a bit of a rogue choice for my trip to Venice this weekend just past. I picked up a copy on the advice of Savidge Reads, who also said that it came warmly recommended by Reading Matters’ Kim, and I have to say that I’m very glad that I did.
In style, Miss Garnet’s Angel reminded me a bit of Possession (although less wordy) or Perfume (less grim) in the way that it intertwined a sense of the historical with a strong narrative style. The book concerns one Miss Julia Garnet, a retired school teacher who after losing Harriet – her close friend and housemate of 30 years – decides to take a six month break in Venice. Julia, seemingly a bit of a hermit at the outset of the story, undergoes a personal journey. She is slowly pried out of her shell by a series of friends who she meets. Her opinions and judgements are challenged in the time that she spends in the watery, enchanting city of Venice.
I felt that Vickers was very successful in creating an atypical but realistic protagonist. Julia is at first a difficult and often prickly character. A self-proclaimed ‘communist’ she is often closed-minded and set in her ways but as the story goes on, she realises that in many instances things are not always as they seem. There are poignant moments where Julia reflects on the qualities of her lost friend that she hadn’t considered before.
This might all sound very wishy-washy to some but this novel is quite adult and serious in parts. As well as Julia’s personal journey there are themes of love and deceit. Vicker’s story is impressive in the way that it uplifts and saddens in equal measure.
There is also an unusual storyline involving the book of Tobias, a piece of Catholic apocryphal writing which Julia becomes interested in after a conversation with a friend. This thread is skilfully woven in becomes more and more compelling as the story unfolds. I have to admit that at first I didn’t understand what this other piece of writing was all about, although it soon became clear. Some of the parallels between the two tales seemed a little too neat but one of the key messages of the book seemed to be about suspending disbelief and enjoying things for their own sake so I decided to do just that.
Miss Garnet’s Angel evoked Venice beautifully. Heartbreakingly, I really became absorbed in it at the airport on the way out, and it just made me want to turn back and lose myself in the labyrinthine streets or sit by the Grand Canal with a glass of prosecco. It had just right measures of description and storyline to carry me away – oh and it was funny too. Definitely a gem of a novel. If you need further convincing, glowing reviews from Reading Matters and Savidge Reads are here and here.