Salley Vickers: Miss Garnet’s Angel

A new theme! Book reviews will be occasional and random, based on the books I was reading anyway rather than any carefully collated selection. I hope you will enjoy them anyway, and add your own comments if you are so inspired.

I’m not usually a fan of anti-heroes. I enjoy books most when I identify positively with at least one of the protagonists, and it occurred to me while reading ‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’ that none of the characters (with the possible exception of the Monsignore, and maybe Toby) are particularly nice. But somehow it works – maybe because although they’re not nice, or reliable, they are presented warmly and sympathetically. Miss Garnet is deeply flawed, but she is also highly relatable, and her respect for and delight in her new friends carries the reader along.

I read this book a few years ago, and decided to re-read it recently was I was spending a weekend in Venice. I remembered that I had loved it, but forgot quite how challenging I had also found it.

Caution: here be spoilers, and also triggers.

Miss Garnet is a woman in late middle age, who decides to go to Venice after the death of her long-term housemate. She is a recently retired teacher, strongly political and idealogical; and yet this is, first and foremost, a ‘coming of age’ story: a sedate and dignified road movie. As she gets to know the streets and churches of Venice, and begins to form friendships with the people she meets there, Julia Garnet begins to discover new parts of herself and to mellow in her attitudes towards others.

I have just read this article about middle age, and I don’t want to feel like this. I adore my family, and I don’t – most of the time – feel that they trap me in anything other than the life I choose. There is a part of me that envies Julia Garnet, but mostly I try to keep open to the periodic reinvention of myself at each junction in my life. Julia’s complete independence to make the connections she wants to make, to be whomever she wants to be, and to let the future take care of itself, resonates with some very enjoyable parts of my life. Both her triumph and her occasional terror are deeply familiar.

There is some ambiguity around the end of Miss Garnet, and my hope is that she lives on disreputably in Venice for many years. She has found for the first time, in her 60’s, something which I was lucky enough to find at 14 and 21 and 24 and 37 and 39, and I want her to have time to enjoy it.

All of these are the reasons why I love this book, and I will almost certainly read it again. There is a fundamental problem for me, though, in the plot which provides most of the dramatic tension for the book. Essentially, a woman claims to have been sexually abused by her father, but we know it’s not true because her male relative says so. There are many instances of unreliable witnessing in this novel, but everything about the narrative structure and subsequent events leads us to believe him; and the woman herself pretty much disappears from view. This storyline is unnecessary, grating and incongruous, as well as being extremely problematic, and it feels really lazy. The book didn’t need another Shocking Plot Twist – it’s too good for that – and if I were Salley Vickers’ editor, I would advise her to delete it. Nobody would miss it.

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