Marie Claire is a slender little girl, wiry and angular, with arms like sticks of kindling. Down her back hang two untidy braids, her hair so dark it inspired her florist grandmother to name a rare black iris in Marie Claire's honor. Marie Claire is an orphan, and under the tutelage of her grandmother she is learning the greenhouse trade. Like generations of the Durrieu family before her, Marie Claire's life is as deeply rooted in the soil as are the roots of the flowers she is learning to tend. In her Belgian hometown of Tournai, famous for its chocolates and its devotion to God, life was once pleasant for a little girl. Marie Claire is just an ordinary French girl, with one dangerous difference: she is Jewish, the year is 1941 and Nazi troops occupy her homeland.

The author places her characters in a city closely tied to Christianity: Conquered by the French, it was thought more beautiful than Paris. Conquered by the English, it was the favored city of King Henry the Eighth. It was also a city of God, or so it was said. The baker sees God in a cherry tart, the barber sees the Virgin's face on the floor of his shop and the butcher finds a small cross in the belly of a lamb. Yet things have gone terribly wrong in Tournai, and it is rumored that God has deserted His city. After a bomb kills her grandmother, Marie Claire is rescued by two nuns and given shelter in their convent. With the arrival of Marie Claire, miracles begin to happen, accompanied by the scent of roses. The living and the dead cross the boundaries of reality as the relentless, dreamlike narrative examines spirituality without sentimentality.

In this compelling and sensitive novel, the redemptive power of faith shines through the horror of the Holocaust. Only in the last pages of the novel does the author reveal how, and through whom, God returns to Tournai. This is an auspicious debut not only for author N.M. Kelby but for her publisher as well: In the Company of Angels launches Hyperion's new literary imprint, Theia Books.

Mary Garrett reads and writes in Middle Tennessee.

 

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