Books May 2001

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In the Company of Angels

Luscious and heartrending, although somewhat insubstantial, this slim first novel with a hellish setting, Belgium under Nazi occupation, overflows with miracles. A child's heart rises from her chest in the shape of the Star of David; a dead father embraces his daughter and teaches her to make chocolate; a postulant leads a family from an air-raid shelter before the shelter is destroyed by a bomb. The story begins in March of 1941, in France. A little Jewish girl is helping her grandmother save her prized hybrid bulbs when their village is bombed. From that moment, heaven begins to twine with earth, until it is impossible to say what is divinity and what is madness; who is an angel and who is not. Two nuns rescue the girl from a cellar by luring her out with chocolate—"the one thing the angels said they could not get in heaven"—and take her with them over the Belgian border to their convent in Tournai, a town that once boasted "sightings of God" "as common as air," but from whence, since the occupation, he seems to have slipped away.

In some ways In the Company of Angels, which is really a novella, suffers from its brevity. N. M. Kelby packs her book with monumental themes—death, betrayal both grand and personal, familial and romantic love, faith, the existence of God—but doesn't give herself room to do more than brush against most of them. Complex and conflicting relationships abound, but in most cases we have to take her word for their intensity; Kelby devotes little space to their development. At heart, however, this is a fable, and as such, it benefits from Kelby's fleeting touch, which enhances the whimsical and the miraculous. Above all, the writing, as sensuous as the chocolate that pervades Kelby's story, makes this well worth reading.

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