Welcome to our very first wrap up post of the Soho Press Book Club. Our first pick, for April, was Jessica Gregson’s incredibly lyrical novel THE ANGEL MAKERS, the story of Sari, a uniquely independent girl in the remote village of Faluscka in Hungary. After the men in her village leave to fight in WWI, Sari and her fellow village women come into their own—and when the men return, thinking they’ll be back to their traditionally dominant role, things get ugly.
One of the best things about THE ANGEL MAKERS (and there are many) is that it is based on a true story. If you want the true facts, from Wikipedia, you can check them out here. Of course there are dozens of other resources on what actually happened in Nagyrev, Hungary. There’s even a movie (unrelated to the novel). In the novel, the characters were such a highlight for me, as was the lushly realized Hungarian village of Faluscka (Gregson’s fictional Nagyrev) and its surrounding landscape, almost surreal in its vastness (although Sari’s intrepid nature brings even this under her sway).
Days after finishing THE ANGEL MAKERS, I’m still not sure how I feel about Sari although, strangely, I don’t have the same feeling about her partners in crime—I don’t feel the need to blame them, somehow. But there’s something about the novel’s main character that holds her to a higher standard somehow. Here’s what the author, Jessica Gregson, had to say about her protagonist:
“In terms of making Sari an outsider, I think it was sort of necessary when you think about the scale of moral transgressions that were involved…She needed to be a bit of an outsider, rather unusual, to effectively introduce the ‘murder plague’ into the village. Plus, of course, her outsider status (and her longing to be included) made it easier for her to be manipulated by others.”
Personally, I love stories set during WWI—not to discount the horrors of that war—because, for many historians, WWI marks the moment when humankind went from believing, on the whole, that the world was improving to believing that, well, it wasn’t. Researching WWI will easily tell you why, and of course hindsight tells us that only 30 or so years later belief in the inherent good of mankind was about to take an even more dire blow with Hitler’s rise and WWII.
So if WWI marks such a dire time in our history, why my affection for it? I find something tragic and romantic about seeing that shift happen in the characters of WWI-era stories. THE ANGEL MAKERS is no different. Gregson tells an amazing story, one where you can’t be quite sure who “deserves” your vote, yet you know all the while whose team you’re on. But she also traces more broadly the tumult of the early 20th century world. In a village where things have always gone in more or less the same, mostly good, direction and all of a sudden there is war, on a personal and national level, between the old and the new. The good of all and good ol’ self interest.
Guess which wins?
What was your favorite part of the novel? Of its setting? Let us know in the comments!
Remember, let us know that you or your book club read THE ANGEL MAKERS and we’ll send you several of our other fantastic lit titles! Email email@example.com.
May’s pick will be this year’s LA Times Book Prize winner, LUMINARIUM!