Do you believe in angels?
More importantly, do you want to believe in angels?
I think that is the real question Kevin Donohue poses with his latest novel, Angels of Destruction.
Margaret Quinn really needs to believe in something. She's alone and so very sad. Her daughter Erica is missing and her husband is dead. She feels alone in the world — until she receives an unexpected visitor one winter night: a child, around age nine, wearing clothes that were not meant for a frigid night like that. Margaret takes her in, warms her, then questions her: who are you? Who are your people? Where did you come from?
Rarely are people truly alone in the world. Margaret has people around her who keep an eye on her, like her neighboring family who don't say too much but know a lot. She has a sister who lives a long, long drive away, but with whom she is close. Margaret is surrounded but simply has not permitted anyone to get close to her for a long time. Loss of a child can do that to a person.
Then Norah shows up on her doorstep. This girl is an answer to her prayers. This girl also, conveniently, is the age of a grandchild she could have.
So she keeps her.
That is one of the only issues I had with this book: bureaucracy, or lack thereof. I'm sure there are mystical powers going on here, but even in a small town along the Monongahela River in 1985, children didn't just show up at school with nary a question. Granted, the principal makes a note to follow up on this surprising student, but the bureaucracy stops there — proof alone that magic is afoot.
I liked the four-part structure of the book: the present of the story, a flashback, the present again and, finally, an epilogue. Frankly, I am thrilled with this non-linear structure. The danger of this approach is that the gaping holes the flashback is supposed to fill can be too massive and it turns into an ungainly trick. With Donohue, the flashback was more like another layer adding depth to an already rich story. The moments of "Oh, I get it," "Haaay!" and "Wait, haven't I met her?" were like small gifts to the reader, a lovely nougat center that could have been awful coconut creme.
The characters were lovely. Sean was on the cusp of so much and needed someone to see him before he disappeared. So was Margaret, come to think of it. Diane was a mix of no-nonsense and love that only a sister can be — and had Margaret reached out to her, she would have been closer.
Norah was a wonderful mix of magic and child. She had abilities and insights, ideas and experiences beyond her years. However, she remained impetuous and willful, moving in directions only the desperate would think wise. Was she an angel? She said she was, and yet... Are angels of destruction messy and dirty, imperfect — or maybe, like John Travolta's angel in "Michael," Norah simply wasn't "that kind" of angel?
Paul, Margaret's late husband, remained a shadowy figure whose story was told only from the memories of the women in his life. While he received fair enough representation for his part in the story, I would have liked to have known more about the man who helped spur action that ultimately brought a nine-year-old waif to his late wife's door. The glimmer we received was fascinating and made me hunger for more. I found it intriguing that a man who was revered, feared, treasured, protected and yet misunderstood had more power than his characters would ever have understood. I suppose we all have a Paul in our lives.
I puzzled a little bit over the man in the fedora. He seemed like a watcher, someone who was supposed to keep order, and yet he stood back — or so it appeared. Other men were in the periphery of Margaret's life, and each of them tried to protect her in their own way, at times with lovely gestures Margaret either didn't see or didn't know.
In the end, the story was about magic, love, getting what you need when you need it, having faith in something, living with loss but not letting go, moving on but not moving away — and seeing the hands that are reaching out to you even when you aren't reaching back.
I really enjoyed this book, and plan to re-read it again later — I read it too fast this time (so I could attend a reading and not have the ending spoiled). Next time, I plan to savor the story. This book deserves that kind of time and attention.