In the Company of Angels: A Novel Liam Mac Sheoinin Book Lovers

book In the Company of Angels: A Novel

reviewed by Liam Mac Sheoinin

Published in Issue No. 155 ~ April, 2010

Thomas E. Kennedy’s In the Company of Angels : A Novel is an elegy to the human heart.  It begins on the couch of a Copenhagen psychiatrist treating a Chilean torture victim, Bernardo Greene. Thorkild Kristensen, Bernardo’s therapist, seems at a loss to help Nardo (as he is called) to go forward, so Kristensen regresses Nardo to the space and time of unimaginable horror in an effort of finally returning a semblance of peace to his patient’s scarred mind.  Nardo, who has taken his Irish mother’s surname, was a teacher in Chile arrested for subversion in his native land for reading the poetry of a state-proscribed poet to his students.  In custody, Nardo is subjected to horrendous torture by men whose names are sobriquets bequeathed by him in order to give the chaotic insanity of the experience a poetic order.  Kennedy’s brilliance in relating Nardo’s recalled horror mirrors the poetry of the suffering soul of his Chilean hero.

In the Company of Angels is epic without being formulaic.  And although the novel begins with Nardo , Kennedy seamlessly allows for many perspectives besides Nardo’s.   In fact, the main character of the novel is a mature Nordic beauty named Michela.  Her plight is perhaps as memorable as Nardo’s.  She has suffered spousal abuse and the loss of her teenage daughter, Ria, to a drug overdose.  Her father, Mikhail Ibsen, a retired journalist, is dying of colon cancer on one floor of a state-run hospice, while her mother, Lise, languishes on another, trapped in the “twilight of memory,” as her late-stage Alzheimer’s disease is described.   The trapeze that Mikhail grasps in order to keep his posterior elevated becomes a vivid symbol for clinging to life.  He spends his waking hours reading “Hamlet” and reciting its more vitriolic passages to Michela during her visits.  He uses Shakespeare’s Danish play to accuse the long-suffering Lise of cuckolding him.  Michela’s love interest, Voss, is a jealous professional—a younger man—proving hot-bloodedness is not confined to warmer climates.

A chance meeting between Nardo and Michela in a nearby café is not chance at all. Nardo’s grey searching eyes have been searching for someone to return summer to the blasted heath that was once his heart.  Because of evil men—like the one he calls Frog-eyes—Nardo’s once verdant heart (befitting a person bearing his surname) has turned to straw.  In their second meeting, Nardo and Michela dance a tango which certainly ranks as one of the most sensuous ever strutted across the pages of fiction.  Kennedy puts the reader wherever he wants to with the charm and grace of a true master, whether on the dance floor or in the room of a dying man thinking how the social revolution in Denmark, his unfaithful Queen that he helped foster with his pen, has all but receded into an insensate blur.  It is appropriate that the dying revolutionist is named Mikhail Ibsen.

In the Company of Angels : A Novel is the kind of lyrical writing we have come to expect from Kennedy, where the description of a character lighting a cigarette or imbibing a glass of XO Cognac borders on poetry.  And when Kennedy gets going, we are treated to endless passages of sheer poetry.  Copenhagen is Kennedy’s muse.  He loves every meter of his adopted city.  This is not to say that Kennedy is blind to the racism and xenophobia foreigners are subjected to in certain circles.  Nardo is nearly accosted by a racist young man during the midsummer festival for no other reason than his “miscolor,” as his racist abuser shamefully puts it.

Thomas E. Kennedy, like all great writers, conjures unforgettable scenes of exquisite beauty.  In many ways, he’s the Irish Catholic Updike.  Voss, Michela’s younger man, in his final scene of the book, is caught by the beauty of a tree sculpture in the park.   He has seen this particular sculpture dozens of times without much effect, but this day, after a proverbial dark night of the soul, he has an epiphany gazing at its remarkable beauty.  Years ago, Copenhagen’s elms had incurred a horrible blight and instead of chopping them down, city officials wisely commissioned that they be transformed into sculptures by local artists.   Kennedy has done the same for the blighted hearts of his characters, especially Nardo and Michela.

In the Comany of Angels : A Novel is a glorious achievement by a modern master.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Kennedy’s latest garners many accolades when award season rolls around.  Thus I am advising bibliophiles to snatch up the first edition with an eye to its future value.  As a reader , however , the value of Kennedy’s first collaboration with the very prestigious publisher , Bloomsbury USA , is of course priceless.

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Liam Mac Sheóinín is a contributing and review editor for The Irish Edition and Abiko Quarterly. His first novel is forthcoming from Six Gallery Press. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He was a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Best New Writing Award in 2007.