Mark Lawson finds a magical, sub-Dan Brown thriller fails to take flight
A seven-way New York auction for this first novel by the author of Falling Through the Earth, a memoir of being the child of a Vietnam veteran, suggests a strong belief that Angelology might be the holy sales grail. And Danielle Trussoni’s book, it turns out, usefully echoes two fictional super-brands. The central premise is pure Dan Brown: wartime correspondence between the philanthropist Abigail Rockefeller (1874-1948) and the abbess of a New York convent hints that the women conspired to hide an item of great value and supernatural significance in a location connected with the Rockefeller family. Inevitably, the path to this artefact lies hidden behind fiendish codes that old moneybags and the nun knocked up between them.
“The Sator-Rotos is a Latin palindrome, an acrostic which can be read in a number of ways,” a character helpfully explains. It’s one of those books in which the cast spend almost as much time staring at text as the reader does.
But another lucrative bookshelf is also used to prop up the plot. The group most strenuously seeking the Rockefeller treasure are the Nephilim, half-human, half-angelic creatures, briefly mentioned in the Bible, who now live alongside humans in a manner not at all unlike the vampires in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.
Trussoni has also drawn, perhaps less knowingly, on The Sound of Music: her protagonist is Sister Evangeline, a young nun who doesn’t quite suit the devotional life and seems at risk of running off to an Austrian castle with Verlaine, a researcher who is determined to get hold of the Rockefeller correspondence. However, readers soon suspect there may be some doubt about exactly how angelic Evangeline is.
The book’s main departure from the teenage vampire market is that, whereas the bloodsuckers in such books are now generally trying to go straight, the Nephilim, as a result of inter-breeding, are essentially bad angels, who can call on a murderous army called the Gibborim.
The emphasis that only “impure” angels threaten humanity is a necessary precaution in a story courting an American market in which books about personal “guardian angels” stand high in the non-fiction charts. The problem is that it plants an underlying metaphor about the dangers of breeding outside your own gene-pool. This is surely not intended to be as offensive as it could be, but may create unease in some readers.
If Trussoni has not entirely thought through the theology of celestial intervention, she is also disappointingly vague on the physical aspects of being an angel in contemporary Manhattan. Leading Nephilim live in Upper East Side penthouses, and often seem indistinguishable from Wasp billionaires, until Trussoni remembers to mention their wings. Sadly, sentences such as “He had taken his jacket off and allowed his wings to emerge through his oxford” give little visual sense of how the characters are managing these backpacks, just as the book is hazy on the mechanics of angels copulating with humans in the first place.
Dan Brown, for all his grievous crimes against writing, was clever to set his ancient puzzles within a recognisable contemporary world, giving a ballast of realism to his preposterous propositions. Angelology moves uncomfortably between the specificity of a thriller and a world of magic, in which items made in heaven can turn up on earth.
Trussoni’s prose generally avoids the assaults on grammar and sense that cram an average Dan Brown paragraph, although she is prone to cliché. “She had the sinking feeling that she was making a grave mistake,” the author notes of one character. Readers who have not been eagerly awaiting the half-breed offspring of The Da Vinci Code and Twilight may soon empathise.
Mark Lawson’s Enough is Enough is published by Picador.