Angelica by Arthur Phillips: Book Review
A Victorian Ghost Story
Told from four narratives, each voice somewhat unreliable in their perspective, Angelica: A Novel by Arthur Phillips is perhaps once of the most beautifully written yet confusing books that I have taken my eyes to.
With several narratives while separate tone, knowing who's testimony of the events is the most accurate makes it hard to weed out in Angelica, as each experiences things some things seperate, other times building on each other's experience subconsciously as they talk about events.
We know from all the characters involved that they can agree on some events in the story: wife Constance was an attractive woman hired to work in at a counter as she would be visibly appealing to the shops customers, later marrying into the family of her employer. While in the early days she claims that she was happy, the couple quickly began to experience miscarriage after miscarriage implying that Constance might have fertility problems. While she still hopes for a child and knows that "her husband has rights", they continue to be sexually active and Constance eventually gives birth to a daughter, Angelica who survives where here siblings had not.
Constance dotes on her daughter most of the time, though has her moments later in the novel where she is more dependent on the Irish nanny caring for her daughter than she is.
Constance fears being separated from Angelica, especially in these later years where she says that she isn't even sure what her husband does for a living anymore and seems to be fearful of displeasing him, especially after one evening he decided he has had enough of Angelica still living in their bedroom after so many years and orders her belongings to be disassembled and put in a former office space in the basement, where her original nursery should have been.
Constance begs and is visibly upset about her husband's cold reaction to sending away there only living child to another room of the house, but she begrudgingly agrees in the end that as the man of the family her husband knows best and sends Angelica for her first night alone.
After several miscarriages, Constance finally bears a living child, Angelica who she dotes on so much to the point of of her husband ordering the child to be sent to her own bedroom after seeing his wife's obsession. To his credit though, the little girl needs to be on her own to grow as a person, and has an Irish nanny on site to care for her in her mother's absence.
Angelica, The Miracle Child
The only surviving child, Angelica has all the attention of her mother, but a strained relationship with her father who always seemed to busy with whatever he does for a living to be bothered with her.
The first night that Angelica is sent to the basement room, she swears that she is hearing her mother up above her and feels neglected that she never comes to rescue her, although Constance does eventually sleep in a chair placed in the room when her husband has gone.
Since her separation from Angelica, Constance has strange nightmares that something is hovering over the bed and that the strange entity has been attacking her in her sleep. She says she feels it grabbing at her neck and pinning her down, her husband who talks in his sleep often saying things in his dreams like he is egging on the attacker like "That's it, hold her down! Just like that."
Constance awakes and feels like she has been choked or hit.
Stranger still, Constance begins to hear tales from Angelica that there is a monster that comes to her at night hovering over her bed. She sees marks on the girl, similar to the same locations where Constance feels that she has been attacked herself but when asked about the marks around the little girls neck, Angelica blames the nanny instead.
While the nightly attacks continue, Constance knows that no one believes what she is experiencing and sets out to find help on her own.
Seeking answers for why she and Angelica are experiencing marks on their bodies and a shared delusion that something is haunting them while her husband is talking in his sleep like he is egging on the monster- Constance meets a medium, Anne Montauge who believes that she can figure out what is haunting the family.
Playing Parents Against Each Other
In the sections of Constance and her husband, we learn already that both suspect each other of abuse adding to the unreliability of the characters in the story.
Where Angelica claims that it is her nanny that has left marks around her neck, she takes advantage of situation to cuddle up to her mother and coo nice things when she wants the attention of mommy, but understands when her father is home it digs under the skin of Constance for Angelica to instead prefer the attention of her father insisting he does a better job of putting her to bed, bathing her, or combing out her hair causing arguments among the couple of who is the better parent.
Why both seem to know what she is doing, they are so unhappy with each other that they almost seem to dote more attention on the child just to anger the other. Constance constantly likes to remind her husband it was his idea to send Angelica into another room, and then gets suspicious when he seems to spend too much time with her in her new room.
Still believing there is an entity to blame for the situation, Constance finds a medium to come to the house and assist in the situation adding further mayhem.
Both parents become jealous of the other, knowing that Angelica is pitting them against each other.
Perhaps the most interesting segment of the book is the narrative of Anne, a former actress that uses her skills from the trade to run a "dog and pony show" of doing a cleansing of the home from Constance hoping to make a fortune from the family, especially since she knows that so called haunting is effecting a child- the family has to be willing to pay good dollar to keep their only daughter alive.
While her parents seem to play into the nonsense, and blame is still being pushed on the nanny, or maybe one of the parents for actually abusing Angelica, the front of the ghost story seems all more plausible.
The testimony of Angelica though, reads differently from that of the adults in which she remembers when her father left home, Anne now an Aunt type figure in the family. While Angelica swears that she actually loves her father, she knows that she had done her part to manipulate him as well.
While it is still suggested that maybe Anne too believed the notion Constance had that perhaps her husband was grooming Angelica to be her replacement one day as a bride, there was still no suggestion of it from Angelica's point of view, only feeling that her father left because she was so wicked.
The multiple perspectives on this novel left it hard to focus on what was actually taking place and if any of the things suggested were true. I don't feel there was actually a ghost, as we know that Anne was taking advantage of the situation as a former actress.
Angelica and her mother grow apart from each other even more with Anne in the picture and at once point, Angelica recalls how she has a second mother now and that sadness that Constance has since her father had left and never to return shortly after Angelica was suspected to have started a house fire.
While this book had some interesting ideas, it got very draggy near about the second section making me wish for a more direct line of story telling- especially since we never know which parts of the story actually happened.
Although beautifully written, Angelica was a little hard to understand and lacking on the action which made for a lot of skimming in the draggy sections.