Impelled into action by the unexpected passing of her closest and only friend, staid retired teacher Miss Julia Garnet rents out her London flat, goes to Venice, and takes a small apartment in the Campo Angelo Raffaele for six months.
Thus opens Salley Vickers's quiet, rich, and gentle novel, "Miss Garnet's Angel."
Venice, la Serenissima - city of bridges, barges, and campaniles; of Renaissance art and palaces; of Christianity, sublimity and light - transforms Miss Garnet's closed and frightened life.
A severe atheist and Communist, she finds herself surrounded by chapels and churches, by images of piety and prayer, of Madonnas and child, and particularly of Raphael, the patron angel of Venice and of travelers.
Without meaning to, she sets out on a transformative journey into the Bible, and begins to understand the value of spiritual vision in a grossly material and atheistic world.
"This is a tragic phase of civilization," Julia thinks, "where we are ashamed to be found to pray."
Yet hers is only one facet of this story of men and angels. The tale of Miss Garnet's inadvertent spiritual quest is interwoven with the retelling of another: the legend of Tobit and Tobias from the Apocrypha. In that story, Tobias is guarded and cared for by the Archangel Raphael, who leads him to a distant land to restore his father's fortunes and sight.
The characters in this impressive novel are its particular strength. Miss Garnet is one of the world's quiet people. She has gone through life unnoticed and dismissed, without the fanfare and clamor that throng today's media, and that so many people now demand for themselves. She is a contemporary everyman for those who have never sought the limelight.
Those she encounters - an art dealer, an American professor and his wife, a scholarly priest, and a set of twins restoring a medieval chapel - are depicted throughout with articulate and generous care.
Equally, the faithful Tobit, the young Tobias, and the compassionate and wise Azarias (the human form taken by the Archangel), have a timelessness, humor, and clarity that span the millenniums.
Though brilliant with refracted and reflected light, Vickers's Venice - a character in its own right - is never garish. Like the subtle and pure colors of the Renaissance artists' palette - ultramarine, rose, gray, and gold - Vickers uses a palette of exquisite prose to paint her Venice with images of liquiescence and illumination, of angelic glory penetrating the dark hollows of timidity, fear, and dissimulation.
"Miss Garnet's Angel" is novel-writing at its finest and most eloquent, that splendid composite of style, wit, and wisdom that encompasses so much truth that it continues to speak long after the covers have been closed. It is the sort of book that effortlessly, like angels, or sunlight on Venice's rippling waterways, casts brightness and beauty into those private and most shadowed recesses of the human heart.
Melissa Bennetts is a freelance writer living in England.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society