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Angels and men

'its abrasive but engaging heroine,', enthused one reviewer. Nonsense. A rude and relentlessly self-centred girl with a plank in her eye and an assortment of chips on her shoulder. We were not amused.

It was my old friend Tony who lent me this, saying how many memories it has brought back for him. Well, set in Durham - can't even remember whether the city is named, but if you knew the city you'd guess from the descriptions - and among an assortment of Evangelical and other Christians…. I suppose it brought back a few memories of my own student days, but my overall reaction was one of mounting annoyance. Here's what I said to Tony once I'd struggled through to the last page, and after I'd asked whether he'd be upset by scathing comments on a book that had meant something to him.

An image to begin with:
– Schumann's orchestration, often described as 'muddy'. As a conductor, he was painfully aware of the weakness of his orchestra and therefore doubled almost everything. A belt and braces approach - give the same melodic idea to the violas and the clarinets, in case one or other section doesn't come in on time.

Then observations, in no particular order.

Frighteningly self-centred
Every character is just another prop or backdrop to Mara, and the nearer they stand to her the less convincing they are. Her parents almost breathe, and sometimes a flicker of life is detectable in the two girls in the college, but apart from that it's a novel full of lay-figures however fleshed they may have been in the writer's eye.
Heavily over-written
Everything is spelt out in meticulous detail lest the reader fail to grasp the admirable subtleties of the writer's thought. (of course, the faults one most loathes in others are those one has detected in oneself; just one of the many reasons why I would never consider writing fiction) Most writing courses I've come across suggest that the tyro should cross out every second adjective … a crude but effective way of helping you realise when you're over-egging the cake.
Overly complicated and poorly focused
The heavy-handed concentration on Mara as the centre of the known universe spoils any chance of investigating, say, faith, or CU evangelicals, or High Anglicanism, or the particularly undedifying conduct of upper middle class students at Little Oxbridge on the Wear. As for her – I felt, artificial – introduction of gay characters … there was something almost prurient in the way Mara speculates about her cousin or the college caterer, and 'the polecat' is just convenient. Someone has to assist our heroine, and resist her "but everyone keeps loving me and I can't see why" charms without actually belittling them.

There were a few one-liners to salvage, though: and one isolated gem among the pop-together plastic beads, a superb paragraph about a stiflingly formal dinner. Credit where credit is due: this is good, and unforgettable.

There was something particularly dreadful about four bishops at a dinner table. Their combined urbanity made her want to eat her cork mat quietly to see if they would say anything. There had also been a cabinet minister, someone high up in the Arts Council, a master of a Cambridge college, and a barrister. And their wives. Liberty prints, crisp blouses, silver brooches. She had behaved herself to the point of insipidity. Maybe they thought she was shy. […] She had even behaved herself when they got on to women's ordination, and the cabinet minister had suggested – arf-arf – that the neatest solution was to delay having women priests until the women themselves could reach a unanimous decision about whaat to wear in church. She had opened her mouth, but then seen Rupert's anxious eyes on her and managed not to say "I thought bitching about vestments was an exclusively male preserve."

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