11/01/2014

The Christmas Angel [Christmas in Cornwall] (by Marcia Willett)

I have enjoyed novels by Marcia Willett for many years now and am always eager to read a new one. I had no idea what to expect of this one, with a Christmas cover and theme; I started reading it on January 6th and was pleased with the serendipity of finding that the first chapter was headed ‘Epiphany’.

‘The Christmas Angel’ follows the life of a small community over the course of a year, each section headed by one of the Christian feast-days, to give a sense of the passing of time. There are four nuns in the community, one of them very elderly and frail, and a priest who lives near by. Then there’s Clem who works as a jack-of-all-trades, but who had previously started training for ordination, only to be thrown off course by the untimely loss of his wife, after giving birth to their son Jakey. Jakey is four at the start of the book, a delightfully thoughtful child with a most endearing quirk in his speech.

And there’s Janna. She’s a free spirit, not sure what she believes, and not intending to stay long. She arrived to help out, and finds herself caught up in more and more food preparation and general care when another of the helpers becomes ill. Everyone loves Janna and hopes she will stick around, but she is fearful of commitment, although she adores the small Jakey. It would, as she and Clem both comment, be just perfect if they could fall in love with each other - but they don’t; they see each other more as sibilngs, or platonic friends.

Also in the picture is Clem’s widowed mother Dossie, and her elderly parents. They don’t live in the religious community, but they are not far away, and are very involved in everyone’s lives. Dossie has rather a poor record for relationships, and indeed starts one in the course of the novel, which we - the readers - know is doomed to failure long before Dossie herself has any inkling.

I have to admit it took me a while to get into this book. Marcia Willetts builds up her characters slowly, and while I undoubtedly found them getting under my skin - particularly Janna and Jakey - I did wonder for a while where the story was going. There’s a fair bit of description, and some quite detailed asides about the business Dossie runs - supplying frozen food for guest houses - and the B&B which her parents used to run.

There’s conflict too - not just Dossie’s unsuitable man, but a decidedly unpleasant plot involving someone trying to con the nuns out of their home, and also a great deal of stress with Dossie’s brother and his snooty girlfriend. We see different perspectives through the book - not at all in a disturbing or intrusive way, but this did mean that it was harder to identify with anyone in particular, or to know who was going to be important.

But by the time I was about half-way through, I was becoming eager to know what would happen, and had found myself becoming really quite fond of the nuns and Dossie, although I never quite managed to get inside Clem. I like character-driven novels, and that’s what this was, with a nice storyline that came full circle as the book ends just before Christmas a year later.

While some of Marcia Willett’s novels include references to events and characters from previous books, this one - as far as I know - does not, and as such can easily be read alone. Despite the somewhat slow start, I enjoyed this very much and would recommend it to anyone who likes thoughtful character-based fiction with a very low-key Christian/religious theme.

Note: 'The Christmas Angel' is published with the title 'Christmas in Cornwall' in the USA. Available both sides of the Atlantic in Kindle form as well as paperback.

Review by Sue F copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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