The Angels of L19
Dan Carpenter discovers The Angels of L19 by Jonathan Walker, a ‘strange, brilliant’ novel set in a close-knit Christian community in Thatcherite Liverpool.
‘What is an angel?’ is a question asked towards the end of Jonathan Walker’s tremendous novel, The Angels of L19. It’s a good question too, one that is debated throughout the book. Robert, our main character, is a born-again Christian after the death of his mother. He lives next door to his cousin and closest friend Tracey, the daughter of the minister of a local church. Their lives revolve around the church, a micro-community in Thatcherite Liverpool. Robert, though, is seeing things. A Presence and a small, strange girl. They have messages for him, things they want him to do. Are they angels? Demons? Something else entirely? That’s the crux of this slice of Christian Weird: a unique genre if ever there was one.
Ostensibly a coming-of-age story, albeit set in a community many of us will not be familiar with, Walker makes this corner of Liverpool come alive. Robert seeks answers to his visions from a number of different people: Mark, a former soldier who found God after a near-death experience in the Falklands, and Jenny, a student of religion. The book is filled with debates about different editions of the Bible, or different interpretations of verse; both of which could, in another author’s hands, alienate many non-religious readers. But Walker makes these debates feel a part of the story, so much so that you can forgive the occasional editorialising on the page.
Elsewhere, music plays an enormous part in the book’s success. Walker writes about music incredibly. In a scene where Tracey tries, unsuccessfully, to match the drums on Blue Monday, Walker writes, ‘“How does it feel?” Bernard Sumner asks in ‘Blue Monday’ – then says it again but changing the “it” to “I” – because, like Uncle Edward, he’s got no idea what an emotion is.’ He writes beautifully about the songs from the era, whether it’s the aforementioned New Order, or two characters lip-syncing along to U2. But it’s done without any air of cool. This isn’t the nostalgia tinged 80s of Stranger Things, this is a rough, real world that the characters live in. Despite the deeply religious setting there is discussion of music, film, politics, and sex, and it feels real.
The horror of the novel, too, is ever-present, even when Robert’s presences are not. There’s an unsettling atmosphere across the book, something uncanny lurking in the background of every scene. When Robert is face to face with the presence, or the girl, it is truly strange, the presence only able to be described in vague geometric terms: ‘Wings, eyes, wheels. Multiplying faces. That’s what angels are made of.’
It is perhaps a close cousin to Richard Kelly’s magnificent debut feature, Donnie Darko (US, 2001). There, Donnie is haunted by Frank, a man in a rabbit suit who assigns him tasks: flooding the school, burning down a house. In the world of The Angels of L19, Frank could easily be read as one of Robert’s angels. There are other parallels, too: the imminent arrival of an American preacher, whose showy Anfield-based service has the air of Patrick Swayze’s creepy self-help guru; the blurry lines between visions and dreams in both.
In the end, The Angels of L19 is a strange, brilliant novel. It’s unsettling when it needs to be, but it is also an excellent coming-of-age story. It’s a novel about blind faith and the pressures of youth. It’s funny, unsettling, and often deeply, deeply uncanny. I don’t think I have ever read a novel quite like it.
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