The Angel of Losses
Mythopoetic Award Nominee
Crawford Fantasy Award winner
WARNING: this review contains some minimal spoilers, mainly because there is no way to talk about the book otherwise. Nothing in here should ruin your desire to read, or ability to enjoy, the book, however, if this sort of book is your thing.
The Angel of Losses is one of those… ambitious books. There’s a lot going on in the narrative and most of it worked for me, which might be why the parts that didn’t stood out so strongly.
This is also an interesting book to review right after having mostly failed out of Alan Steele’s V-S Day. A good chunk of The Angel of Losses is retellings/reimaginings of stories of the Wandering Jew and of a Kabbalistic figure called “The White Rebbe” and his eternal enemy/salvation “The Angel of Losses,’ Yode’a.
I’m fond of Jewish folklore, but I can’t claim to more than a passing familiarity with any of its tropes or traditions. Yet I found those sections of the book the most engaging. I think the difference is in approach. Steele was writing what is essentially history fan fic, and, like every fan fic writer he assumed we were intimately familiar with ‘canon’ to the point of not needing to physically describe people or give them anything beyond a passing brushstroke of character, since we’re meant to know all that already. Feldman, on the other hand, seemed to understand that her audience was likely to be like me — only vaguely familiar with the material she wanted to present — so she intentionally chose a narrator, Marjorie, to be a modern New Yorker and doctoral student who thinks her family are non-Jewish immigrants from Russia. (Spoiler? Maybe, except that it’s the kind of thing I suspect most readers are going to guess way before the protagonist does.) As a bonus, the thing Marjorie is researching? Yep, you got it: The Wandering Jew/The White Rebbe.
Marjorie has been obsessed with the stories of the White Rebbe ever since her sister Holly saw a ghost the night when their grandfather, Eli, told them both a story about a murdered boy and how the White Magician, as he called the White Rebbe, saved an entire village from paying the price for the murder. The story bothered Marjorie because it seemed unfinished. Who murdered the boy? All the story reveals is that the poor, innocent shoemaker who the village left as a scapegoat is freed by the White Magician, who conjures the spirit of the dead boy to lead the king’s men to the killer. The king’s men go away following the ghost, the shoemaker is free, and the story ends. When Marjorie asks her grandpa who killed the boy, Eli flies into a rage and tells her never to ask about that again.
I don’t know about you, but right away I was thinking: If the ghost showed up at their house, then it follows that the murderer is at their house, too. Let’s see, and grandpa was really angry…. hmmmm.
Marjorie doesn’t go there.
In fact, it takes her a really long time to understand that all of her grandfather’s stories are true, and many of them, shall we say, are clearly autobiographical.
Maybe, again, that’s a huge spoiler, but I think this is the problem with ‘ambitious’ books: they are trying to be literary.
Fantasy and science fiction readers aren’t stupid. Okay, I might be stupid about the history of space exploration, but I’ve read enough SF/F to follow along and make quick connections between folklore and the ‘reality’ of the novel. Here, it seemed as though all of those connections were supposed to be a surprise, which it never was for me.
Having already guessed the Big Reveal left me casting around for other things to be interested in, and I came up a little short there, too. Marjorie’s sister Holly ends up converting to an Orthodox Sect of Judaism called Berukhim (which appears to be made up). Holly changes her name to Chava, and… Marjorie is kind of a dick to her and her new family in a way I never fully understand. Marjorie spends a lot of her internal dialogue feeling wounded and left out, and yet she won’t call Chava by her chosen name or make any real effort to talk to her sister, except to demand she be the person she used to be. The only time Marjorie is even half-nice to Chava is when she talks Chava into breaking kosher and going out to eat at a pancake house. The whole thing set my teeth on edge.
So… the book’s resolution fell flat for me on two ends. I felt that Marjorie’s redemption was only half-assed, and that the big reveal just wasn’t all that big if you’d been following along. That being said, the folk tale sections were absolutely lovely, all secret alphabets and Jewish mysticism. Also, any time Feldmen blurred the lines between reality and mysticism, I was all in.
Maybe it’s okay that Marjorie is a jerk at the end. After all, one of the themes is that loss isn’t something you can run from. It is, in point of fact, what makes us human.