Angels and Men by Catherine Fox is set in a Durham college, apparently around the late 1970s and early 80s. The protagonist, Mara, arrives to write her MA on women in historical religious sects, as part of her attempt to come to terms with the unspecified trauma of the last few years. Accustomed to being aloof and isolated, she lets herself be drawn into friendship with two bouncy undergraduates, who introduce her to the men with whom Mara becomes romantically involved: Rupert, the son of an Evangelical bishop, and Johnny, an ex-womanizer who has sworn off sex until his ordination. Mara’s emotional life is complicated by the turbulence inside her psyche, which appears to be spilling out through her artistic talent, through disturbing visions and memories of her dead twin sister.
One of the novel’s great strengths is the psychological intensity with which the protagonist and her mental landscape are depicted. The inevitable comparisons with Susan Howatch work in Fox’s favour: there is none of the patronising tone Howatch so often produces when trying to reveal a character via first-person narration, winking over the head of the protagonist towards the reader, and none of the tendency towards verbal tics when constructing their internal language. Mara Johns becomes a strongly realized figure, through whose impressions (external and internal) the novel’s plot is developed. The narrow focus which this might create in another work is woven into the story and becomes part of the characterisation, and Fox even allows herself a joke late in the book about the fact that other people can exist in the world without Mara being aware of them. Tellingly, this only happens after we have been plunged into her mental processes for long enough to them to seem the natural (if not unerring) perspective on this small academic community.
It is a tribute to the engagement Fox cultivates between the reader and her protagonist that at two points I had to reread a page after realizing I had mistaken a dream sequence for narration, or vice versa, and that this didn’t feel like a trick but a reflection on the way Mara’s mind dealt with memory and experience. The effect was not unlike some passages of Anthony Powell or J.I.M. Stewart, though where they use echoes and recurrences in long swathes of time to produce their symbolic landscapes, the juxtapositions in Fox’s narrative are produced by time collapsing in on Mara. The can produce expanded symbols, such as the idea of walking on water which quietly haunts long stretches of the book, or compact verbal knots, such as the light in the street at the end of one chapter which is described as shining in an “uncomprehending darkness”, brilliantly quibbling on the meanings which have been ascribed to John 1:5. Donna Tartt’s first book might be a better comparison than those Prousty midcentury novelists, certainly in the vivid and even scathing depiction of social “types” in a particular place and time. (From the stories friends tell about religious groups at university, the sketching of the personalities involved in a minor “revival” in the college is lethally accurate.)
Mara’s aloofness neatly defamiliarises the world which the undergraduate characters take as natural and eternal, revealing the different trajectories which brought her characters to the college, and the different meanings which the same events can have for them. This is painfully but unflinchingly applied to the attempted rape which takes place late in the novel: Fox does not spare the reader the casual intimate violence which seems entirely reasonable to one student, nor the careful explanations from a close friend that Mara must have misunderstood what happened to her.
It may sound dismissive to describe Angels and Men as a “college novel”, but it’s an example of what that term might mean in the best sense. It depicts the intense and crowded emotional world of a particular figure, set against a deftly outlined social situation, and dramatizes the personal changes which that figure undergoes. It’s also extremely funny at times – at one point Mara despairs of ever being free of “the long arm and limp wrist of Anglicanism” – and ferociously readable.