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Monday, August 10, 2009

Whether or Not You Believe, Donohue's New Novel Will Have You Looking at Angels in a Whole New Light

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Do you believe in angels?
That's been the question on everyone's mind ever since 3rd grader Norah Quinn announced she's a messenger of God. No doubt, strange things have been happening ever since the child arrived in town, but an angel? Certainly, her presence has brought widowed Margaret Quinn back to life - still, an angel? Her classmates know she possesses a strange kind of magic - Is it good or bad? Of heaven or hell? No one knows for sure.
Even Margaret Quinn doesn't know what to make of the foundling who arrived on her doorstep in the middle of a bitterly cold night. The child stood there shivering, bedraggled, alone, claiming to have no parents, no home. Margaret did what any mother would - she took the girl in. For the older woman, Norah represented not just a child in need but a "blank slate upon which, at this late hour of life, she might begin again" (10). Still reeling from the loss of her own daughter who ran away with her boyfriend at 17, never to be heard from again, Margaret sees a shot at redemption. To waylay any suspicion, she invents a background story for Norah - she's Margaret's granddaughter, the child of her own missing child, sent to grandma's while her parents patch up a dissolving marriage.
Slowly, Norah seduces the town. Margaret's frozen heart thaws when she hears the girl's laughter; young Sean Fallon would traipse to the end of the Earth for his friend; even Margaret's suspicious sister falls under her spell. At school, she performs magical tricks that go way beyond illusion or sleight of hand. The children adore her, even as they struggle to understand her. She befuddles the adults, who find her strange ways unsettling. All children are capable of concocting stories, but when Norah tells her class she's an angel, her oddities become sinister. Now, she's deranged. When she leads a group of children to the railings of a high bridge, she becomes a threat, a dangerous pied piper sent from the devil to lead the innocent astray. Again, the question: Who is Norah Quinn? What is she, really?
Angels of Destruction, Keith Donohue's second novel (after The Stolen Child, reviewed here) explores the question of angels through the enigmatic Norah. What does an angel look like? From where does one come? What is their purpose? Is the idea of angels anything but utter insanity? Donohue advances his ideas while mining the hearts and souls of his characters, solving the mystery of Erica Quinn's disappearance, and telling an unpredictable, wholly compelling story. It's not quite as otherworldly as The Stolen Child, not quite as captivating, but still magical in its own way. It's a unique story that will linger in your mind long after you've finished it.
Even more than the story itself, I like Angels of Destruction for its craftmanship. Donohue creates sentences, paragraphs and scenes meticulously. He excels at setting and maintaining tone, using only subtle shifts to morph chilling into charming. This passage sent a shiver down my spine:
Nothing more than the substance of prayer, the fear to complement hope, he tested the limits of his new form, shifting his weight from one leg to the other and cracking the stiffness in his muscles and bones to break the icehold ... To free his hands, he flexed his fingers in the leather gloves and touched the brim of his hat goodnight to mother and child asleep in the house. Before departing, he carved with his fingertip the name Noriel in the frost of the windshield, and breathing once up on the glass, he melted the word (10).
This one made me smile with delight:
They fell in love with her. Each day illuminated some new aspect of her character that caused the children of the Friendship School third-grade to wonder what strange character had landed in their midst. Ordinary marvels abounded. She seemed to know just which questions to ask Mrs. Patterson to make their lessons clear and discussion lively. A pop quiz produced the unexpected result of perfect scores all around, an anomaly that puzzled the teacher well after her second cocktail that evening. A spelling bee dragged on past its appointed hour with no child left out, not even the recalcitrant boys who usually could not accomodate the spelling of their own names correctly ... Her crooked smile bestowed a spark of glee to January, as if she were lit within and could cast off gloom (46).
Such is the brilliance of this unique writer. While I wouldn't call Angels of Destruction my favorite novel, it certainly grabbed my attention. It chilled me, charmed me, and kept me guessing. Unusual, but compelling, magical and ultimately hopeful, it's a book that shouldn't be ignored. Whether or not you believe, it will have you looking at angels in a whole new light.
Grade: B
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language, some violence and some sexual content.


  1. Thanks Susan for your lovely review and kind words, and next time, I'll have to try for an A. All best, Keith

  2. Thanks for your comment, Keith. I hope you know that my grading is completely subjective - it depends on my mood, books previously read, the phase of the moon, etc ... If I had been handing out grades back when I reviewed THE STOLEN CHILD, it would have gotten an A. I just love your writing and the originality of your ideas. Thanks again for stopping by!

  3. I absolutely loved this book! I gave it a 4.5/5. I don't often quote from books when I review them but I just had to with this one. Such beautiful moments in it!

    It's great to read your review. I haven't seen this one reviewed much in the blogosphere.

  4. I've just read The Stolen Child and adored it and was wondering whether to get his new book or not. Based on this review I certainly will do so. Not sure if it's out in the UK yet, must check that. Excellent review!


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