Told in massive chunks of first-person narrative from vastly different points of view -- minister Stepehn Drew, deputy state's attorney Catherine Benincasa ("with those lovely blue eyes and the name of a saint"), bestselling author Heather Laurent (her noted book is "Angels and Aurascapes"), and finally a person who may know the most hidden facts of the murder -- this is a compelling page-turner with characters who bleed into our hearts. We know them, we've known them. Some live in a mountain community in Vermont, and some visit or work there. Their narratives allow us an intense intimacy that in real life doesn't happen often.
Take Stephen Drew, the unmarried and charismatic minister who's blaming himself for not somehow saving a battered woman in the congregation. He aches for her, even as he fathers her in the act of baptism in front of the congregation, at a chilly outdoor pond:
"Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?" I asked her.Bohjalian's details nail the scenes: fingers like handles of a shopping bag, and later, the pastor's blue jeans (rather than a weighted-down robe) soaked with water and heavy on his hips. It will be Stephen Drew's words that haunt us, also, with the abuse that Alice Hayward had sustained: He is haunted by the medical examiner's report that "Alice's rear end and her back were flecked with fresh contusions, which meant that [her husband] Geroge had beaten her the Friday or Saturday night before she was baptized and none of us knew."
"Do you intend to follow him all the days of your life?"
"I do," she said again.
I cradled the back of her head with my left hand and held her clasped fingers like the handles of a shopping bag with my right, and then leaned her backward beneath the surface of the cold, mountain-fed waters, baptizing her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Like Christ, she had been buried and reborn. She had risen, been resurrected. The symbolism is unmistakable, as clear as any metaphor in the Bible. I wondered when I baptized Alice why so few members of the congregation chose immersion. The wetness means more than the words.
Although pain and grief haunt the story, angels also bless it -- especially in the person of angel-aware Heather Laurent, who weaves comfort for others, out of the strands of her own haunted past. The end of her book tour brings her to town just as Stephen Drew faces his parishioner's brutal murder. Death is a constant companion for Heather, whose book reads:
My father shot my mother on the night of the day that he learned she had taken a lease on another house, one that would be large enough for my sister and me when we were home from school. That was as clear a signal as he needed that this time she really was going to leave him. And so, late that night, he shot her and then killed himself.Although Heather and her book are comforts to many, deputy state's attorney (investigating prosecutor) Catherine Benincasa suspects the author. Heather's visit to the medical examiner's office creates reactions that Benincasa worries about, as the medical examiner tells her:
"She said we'd fear dying much less if we allowed ourselves to feel the presence of the angels among us."Stephen Drew's hunt for absolution, Catherine Benincasa's hunt for the legal reality of the murder-suicide, and Heather Laurent's shattering loss of confidence in what her angels have shown her resonate in the heart. There is so much to identify with among these vibrant speakers that when the truth does begin to creep forward in this powerful story, it has a voice that's hard to recognize at first. Bohjalian holds the cards and the suspense until the final page, when the last secrets are washed and held up to the light.
"And you said?"
"I said absolutely nothing. It was a straight line with far too many responses. And she was completely sincere. But you know what expression did cross my mind after she left?"
And he said, his voice at once troubled and bemused, "Angel of death. I'm telling you: That woman is as stable as a three-legged chair."