Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

falling angels

Published: 2006 by Harper
My copy: bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “I secretly hoped that the change in the century would bring a change in us all; that England would miraculously slough off her shabby black coat to reveal something glittering and new. It is only eleven hours into the twentieth century, but I know very well that nothing has changed but a number.”

I took a gamble on this, my holiday read (I had a fantastic time away at Wave Gotik Treffen in Leipzig, Germany), as I find Chevalier an incredibly hit and miss author: I loved The Virgin Blue but didn’t enjoy Burning Bright at all. Fortunately, this one was a hit and – if less gripping – much more convincing in its period detail than my other holiday read, Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat. Set in and around Highgate Cemetery, Falling Angels chronicles the interlinked fortunes of two families, the Colemans and the Waterhouses, who own adjacent grave plots. At the dawn of the twentieth-century the daughters of the two families, Maud and Lavinia, are both six. The story follows them into adolescence taking in a number of cultural upheavals along the way, most significantly the rise of the Suffrage Movement. But, like all novels set in Highgate (and there are loads aren’t there?), it’s the character of the cemetery itself that takes centre stage most of the time, and this is no bad thing. Chevalier has clearly done a lot of research into Victorian/Edwardian mourning practices and I found it interesting to compare the very different attitudes to death between the two families.

The novel is narrated in the first person from the varied perspectives of a number of different characters. Since some of the personalities feel much more developed and convincing than others this made the narrative quite patchy overall and shortness of some sections made it feel rushed in places. But overall this was an enjoyable read; one which rehearses many of the same themes about the loss of innocence and the passing of time as Byatt’s The Children’s Book, though from a rather less academic perspective.

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