'Angelica': It's spooky when a marriage goes awry

Is this the story of a guilty husband or an over-wrought wife?

Constance Barton seriously needs a night light. The Victorian mother, who leaps out of bed every time her 4-year-old daughter coughs, was never a sound sleeper. But now that her husband, Joseph, has ordered Angelica, who's been sleeping in their bedroom, to her own room, Constance roams the halls at night, haunted by odd smells, strange sounds, and mysterious cracks in the furniture. Then one night, she sees a floating blue specter hovering above her daughter's bed.

Constance tries to convince Joseph that something is seriously wrong, but her medical biologist husband becomes alternately enraged by what he sees as a campaign to isolate him from his family and alarmed that his fragile wife has taken leave of her senses. Determined to protect her only child, Constance seeks help from an actress-turned-spiritualist, Anne Montague, to cleanse the evil from her home.

Arthur Phillips's new novel Angelica tells the same events from four viewpoints: those of Constance, Anne, Joseph, and the now-grown Angelica. Like Iain Pears's "An Instance of the Fingerpost," which has a similar structure, the tale takes on entirely new light depending on the teller.

Is Angelica really in danger? Is Anne a charlatan whose meddling causes irreparable harm or a friend who is sincerely concerned for Constance's well-being? Is Joseph capable of horrors or merely a put-upon middle-aged man? Is Constance truly haunted or completely mad?

The narrator refuses to rule out the possibility of ghosts, but 'Angelica' has much more in common with Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw" than with the works of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. "This tended garden we are pleased to call an English marriage is a subterranean jungle with a few dainty blooms on the surface," remarks Dr. Miles, whom Joseph consults about his wife's sanity.

The Barton marriage, which started as a fairy tale when the war hero married the orphaned shopgirl, has been strained to the breaking point by several miscarriages and Angelica's birth, which nearly killed mother and daughter. When doctors informed the Bartons that Constance probably would not survive another pregnancy, she installed the baby in their bedroom. Without her daughter's presence to protect her, Constance becomes more and more terrified of her husband. (Hints about dark dealings during his war years and the discovery that the medical lab where he works engages in vivisection and other experiments on animals cause her to recoil further.)

What she finds most unforgivable, though, is that he seems determined to separate her from Angelica, the child who gives her life meaning.

Meanwhile, Joseph can't believe what a bad bargain his marriage has become. The beautiful girl who used to worship him is now a haggard sleepwalker who ignores him. "Constance's transformation from wife to mother was so thorough, so magically comprehensive, it was as if she were acting out some myth. She dedicated herself to the child to the detriment of all wifely responsibility, even of simple preference or affection for her husband."

She has trained their daughter to avoid him and reacts with fear and fury if he tries to read Angelica a bedtime story or help her with her bath.

Phillips (author of both "Prague" and "The Egyptologist") appears to be enjoying himself, twisting his domestic melodrama ever tighter. He layers Victorian issues about sex and gender with modern psychology and British snobbery, and overlays it all with some truly elegant writing.

Some of the surprises aren't quite the revelation they are meant to be (readers will guess the identity of the narrator long before Phillips comes clean, and the unnamed tragedy is pretty apparent by the end of Constance's section). But the shifting perspective keeps readers just off balance enough to keep them guessing.

In that, it resembles a story that Dr. Miles tells Joseph: "The tale did not stop here, but turned upon itself at least three more times before Joseph lost all track of who had been guilty, mad, or worthy of his sympathies. With the testimonies of each new character … both the murder and the marriage shifted, guilt fluttered from one shoulder to the next, taking wing again as soon as its claws had touched down."

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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