Friday, 15 March 2013

ANGEL HEART by Marie Laval

Angel Heart by Marie Laval is a stunning piece of historical romantic suspense, exquisitely written and lovingly told, against the backdrop of  the close of the Napoleonic era in France.  Although a few scenes take place in England, the story unfolds mostly in France,. 

In the opening chapters of the novel, we meet Marie Ange Norton, (nee Jones), a young widow, still in her early twenties, widowed tragically young.  She continues to wear mourning and lives in seclusion, cherishing sweet memories of a husband she’d just been getting to know when he was tragically killed in battle off the Spanish coast.  We may not initially realize it, but her memories are tinged with idealism.  Christopher was the perfect lover and the perfect husband.  She loves her late husband’s younger brother and treats him as her own brother, all too aware that he will soon leave her and follow his elder brother into the Royal Navy.  The brother and sister-in-law, the last of their family, live in crumbling mansion on the coastline of England.  However, the arrival of a French ship in the neighbourhood bearing the enigmatic French Army officer Hugo Santclair changes Marie Ange’s secluded existence forever, although she’s not aware of it at the time.  Capitaine Saintclair bears news of the demise Marie Ange’s step grandfather, the notorious Edmond Malleval.  Malleval has, it seems, left Marie Ange some bequest.  She is now required to accompany the Capitaine to France to meet her step uncle, Uxeloup Malleval (don’t you just love that name!) and complete some routine formalities.  The journey to Malleval’s home in France is hazardous, first a ship journey, then a long drive by carriage, encountering unknown dangers along the way, such as highwaymen.  France, with its monarchy newly re-established, is a dangerous place and it is hard to know who is a friend or a foe.  Marie Ange, having lived a simple life up to know, is not at all attracted to the handsome Capitaine, finding him somewhat worldly and repulsive.

The story takes an interesting turn when Marie Ange spots a man who looks and sounds exactly like her late husband, who doesn’t seem to recognize her.  Either the man is an exact double, or her husband didn’t die after all.  Her relative Uxeloup Malleval turns out to be a dark character indeed and he has some dastardly plans for Marie Ange.  Finding herself in a hotbed of intrigue and danger, she finds that Malleval and his ghastly friend Karloff are more than a little interested in her late mother’s locket and sketch book.  A mystery worthy of the Da Vinci Code ensues, involving hidden treasures, Knights Templar and the like.  Marie Ange also uncovers mysteries from her past such as her true parentage.  There were delicious chills and excitement in abundance, adding up to a thrilling read.

What is particularly interesting is the development of the characters, how they grow and change in the course of the story.  Capitaine Santclair, a man of humble origin who has risen to be an officer in Napoleon’s army, shows a perfect example of how a cynical, war weary, worldly man can turn into a passionate, valiant and faithful lover.  Marie Ange is so simple and unworldly that at first the Capitaine suspects her of duplicity, wearing the mask of a grieving widow while pursuing affairs in secret.  The realization that Marie Ange is exactly what she shows herself to be – woman still in love with her dead husband – has a strange effect indeed on this man.  But as the story progresses, Marie Ange  shows her inner strength, metamorphosing from  being a simple, gentle girl widow to a feisty woman, ready to fight to defend herself and even to kill when put to the test.  As the story develops, she transforms, in the eyes of the world, from a grieving widow to a lover and most astonishingly,  to a runaway wife. The ultimate irony, in a way.  Discovering that she may not, after all, be a widow, would have brought joy to her life at the opening of the story, but as her relationship with the capitaine develops, it complicates things..

As a lifelong enthusiast of all things French, language, culture and history, I was struck by how authentically French the novel felt.  The author voice was perfectly clear and expressive in English, yet it had a French ring to it.  I was not surprised to learn that the author is a Frenchwoman.

There is a slight supernatural twist to the story too and this only added to the pleasure of reading.  There is a lot to recommend this book and I hope that it is widely read and enjoyed.