In his third novel, Angelica, Arthur Phillips once again proves himself a versatile, elegant writer of immense talent. Constance Barton and her husband, Joseph, suffered through a painful string of miscarriages before the birth of their daughter, Angelica. But after a difficult birth and doctor's orders to avoid further pregnancies, Constance finds her life taking a dark turn. Joseph exiles his young daughter from her parents' bedroom; he's tired of being denied his marital rights. Being alone with his wife will not, however, be so easy. Constance insists on sleeping in a chair in Angelica's new room, haunted by a terrifying blue spectre that seems bent on harming the girl.
But does the spectre really exist? Phillips tells his story in four parts, each section revealing new truths while proving the previous section full of deceit. Constance summons Anne Montague part spiritualist, part psychologist whose role in the story poses as many questions as it answers. Each character is drawn with deft strokes; we know them well. At least we think we do, until we start reading the next section.
Phillips does an enviable job of capturing the essence of late Victorian London, a time full of contradictions and growth, giving us glimpses of a world much concerned with rank from the eyes of both the working and middle classes. The identity of his unreliable narrator is not revealed until the end of the novel, and even once we know who's telling the story, we're still not certain which bits of it are true. In the hands of such a skilled author, this type of ending is perfectly satisfying. We can't, after all, always know the truth. This is a book you will close, but continue to contemplate. Comparisons to Henry James' The Turn of the Screw are inevitable, and Phillips' novel can hold its own when it comes to them. Erudite, dazzling and full of ambiguity, Angelica is not to be missed.
Tasha Alexander is the author of the Victorian-era mystery A Poisoned Season, reviewed in this issue.