(or How Grief May Ignite an ‘Incipient Forest Fire’ of Insight Within a Person Wandering the Streets of Venice)
“The hat had belonged to Harriet and although Miss Garnet, when she had seen it on Harriet, had considered it overdramatic, she had found herself reluctant to relegate it to the Oxfam box. The hat represented, she recognized, a side to Harriet which she had disregarded when her friend was alive.”
I first read Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnet’s Angel several months ago, and its atmosphere persists, despite the many stories, poems and essays (some of them undeniably wonderful) that I’ve consumed in the interim. I feel, lingering around me, the musty air within ancient churches; I sense the kind gaze of an angel beaming straight out from the flat plane of a lost panel; I picture and re-picture an unfashionable, timid, yet determined woman traipsing the streets of Venice, driven by some curiosity and need she can’t articulate. I’m revisiting this book to try to understand why its aura is so persistent—why it has stuck.
Factor one: surprises carry extra punch, and this was an unexpected find, on several fronts. One, I had no prior knowledge of Vickers, and what a joy it was to encounter her no-nonsense style, her refusal to resort to obliqueness, her gentle humour and her absolute conviction in the validity of her characters’ experiences and ideas. Two, the Book of Tobit, the apocryphal tale about a righteous blind man, his son, the Angel Rafael and a dog, that Vickers embeds so beautifully and affectingly within her own, was a haunting revelation. Three, I had little prior interest in Venice, the novel’s setting. The place had, for me, taken on the aura of superficiality, nothing more than a tourist must-see. But after spending several fictional months roaming Miss Garnet’s Campo Angelo Raffaele and the wonders of Venice beyond it, I saw how snobbish and stupid my dismissal of the historic city’s seductive powers had been.
That comeuppance aside, it definitely wasn’t Venice that lured me. I plucked the novel, published in 2000 but set several decades prior, off the shelf at the local church’s thrift shop one Friday morning and read this on the back: “When a friend dies, Julia Garnet goes to stay in Venice, where a lifetime of caution is challenged.” As it happens, I was embroiled in revisions on a manuscript inspired by my own lost friend. I’d been lamenting how seldom one encounters this particular loss in literature, how we routinely parse the grief of lovers, spouses, parents, children, siblings, though so many of us would count our dearest friends among the greatest loves of our lives. I turned the book in my hand, looking it over, flipping its soft pages, claiming it. I paid a toonie to the volunteer behind the folding table, and allowed my son, who’d been yanking on my arm, to pull me toward the next room, where the toys are displayed.
I’ve been remembering this as a book about a politically strident, straitjacketed, judgmental woman’s awakening to beauty, mystery and the power of love. In essence, in a kind of trial-by-fire, loss offers life to a dried-out soul. What’s remarkable, coming back to the book, is to realize that Julia Garnet’s transformation begins to take shape so very early in the story. This isn’t a story culminating in a character’s evolution so much as one about what happens to her (and within her) throughout and on the other side of that changing. Though quiet, borne chiefly of seemingly innocuous moments, the initial changes in Miss Garnet are quick and profound. To compare it to your old-fashioned “happily ever after,” if this were a love story, it would be one that begins, as opposed to ends, on the wedding day.
On page 20, shortly after arriving in Venice armed with her steely sense of irony, Miss Garnet encounters Santa Maria della Salute, “like a vast soap bubble formed out of the circling, dove-coloured mists.” She is overcome. “‘Oh!’ cried Miss Garnet. She caught at her throat and then at Harriet’s veil, scrabbling it back from her eyes to see more clearly. And oh, the light! ‘Lord, Lord,’ sighed Julia Garnet. She did not know why she had used those words as she moved off, frightened to stay longer lest the unfamiliar beauty so captivate her that she turn to stone, as she later amusingly phrased it to herself.”
Eight pages later, after a glass cutter refuses payment for repair work on a Bellini portrait of the Virgin and Christ Child, there’s this: “But Miss Garnet, in whom insight, like an incipient forest fire, was beginning to catch and creep, sensed suddenly that there was more to it than that. The glass-cutter, she guessed, also liked the subject of Bellini’s painting and his love of Mary, and the bambino in her arms, was stronger than his love of money. How would Marx or even Lenin have explained that, she wondered…”
A few pages after this, after the opening of a perfunctory letter from a friend back home: “For a moment Julia Garnet remembered the impoverished little ceremony with which she had bidden Harriet a final farewell, and the utilitarian stone with the severely practical information carved upon its stony face, with which she had chosen to mark the passing of her closest friend’s life.”
Jabs of insight, memory and awe are laid like stepping stones throughout the book. Miss Garnet dutifully hops from one to the next, learning as she goes a talent for self-awareness, an openness she’d heretofore never imagined, and a tolerance for ambiguities: a humility before the mysteries of life and death. What’s puzzling is Vickers’ ability to keep us invested in Miss Garnet’s fate while revealing, so early on, that she’s facing and conquering her grief with aplomb. There’s no sense of pending disaster: we don’t fear for her safety or that she’ll be damaged by her new boldness. We do see her suffer for having put herself “out there”—in fact it’s her first broken heart, poignantly late in life—but this suffering, too, becomes part of her changing: it makes her less afraid, and only pushes her further in her reclamation of herself.
On some level it doesn’t matter what happens after Julia has begun to change: She’s finally living, yes? So who cares about the details? But oh, we do care. Vickers makes sure of that. We care about the twin restorers she befriends, and the odd tensions between them. We care about young Nicco who wants to learn English, and Carlos the art historian who pines after him. We care about the wealthy American couple who force Julia to confront her prejudices against the rich, and about the ageing Monsignore, who embodies all the excesses of the Catholic church as well as its redemptive spirit. We care about the intrigue Julia finally becomes embroiled in. But mostly we care how her own journey and her perception of its meaning becomes so elegantly interwoven with the Book of Tobit. Brilliantly, Vickers gives Julia splendid agency here: intrigued by its plot and by the artistic representations around her—especially those of the Angel Rafael and the dog—Julia conducts her own investigation into Tobit’s story. We discover it alongside her. She jots brief, sudden insights into a little notebook that had been intended for history notes on Venice. “Dogs lead the blind. Old Tobit is ‘blind’ because he doesn’t see the limitations of his own values. (Look how he treats his wife when she is working her fingers to the bone for him. He doesn’t ‘see’ her!)” As Julia had failed to see Harriet, an insight into her own ‘blindness’ that she has already begun to grasp. This is the character taking charge of her own evolution, through study of the human heart.
So, why does this book stay with me? When my own friend died, many years ago, I remember the world around me shimmering in a kind of unreal clarity. I felt able to see and understand things that had previously lain beyond perception. The surprise of each day and how much it might contain. My grief gave me an unasked for vitality and power—and even on the worst days, all around me was vivid, translucent. Porch railings, leaves, the faces of strangers. Once, jogging in my Toronto neighbourhood, I paused for a long time to watch a caterpillar cross the sidewalk. Its laborious journey from one grass edge to the next appeared epic. I was grateful, though confused by the fact that the reason for all this intense awareness was a reality I would wish reversed. Bring me back my friend, give her back her life, but don’t take what I’ve gained by her loss. Now there’s an emotional and psychological paradox, one mined to its core by Vickers.
Miss Garnet’s Angel is a story of redemption, one that admits the impossible, that allows for human frailty and the beauty embedded even in that. Some might call this story soft, or “easy,” because of its optimism and its essential kindness toward its characters. We are so afraid, we skeptics, of anything that hints at reverence. But Vickers’ generosity is profoundly political. In her matter-of-fact yet loving telling of Miss Vickers’ journey through gradual enlightenment, Vickers reminds us why we require beauty every bit as much as food, and how because of this, if we allow ourselves, we’re able to find it in the most unlikely, even the most apparently ugly, of circumstances. Imagine being granted permission to simply live, to take in what is placed before you, through all your senses, in all the imperfection of your own humanity. Imagine that.
- If you’re curious about the Book of Tobit
- Insights on beauty from Canadian poet Shawna Lemay