July 18, 2008

The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman

In the past few years, I've started several of Alice Hoffman's books, but this is the only one that I've finished. It's not that the others weren't good - they were very well-written from what I could see. They just didn't hold my attention.

The Third Angel - Hoffman's newest - held my attention. A lot. So much so, that I finished it in two days and, between it, work and my own writing, got very little sleep. And I'm still not sure why I couldn't put it down....

So, instead of trying to put into words the intangible something that apparently got me, I'm going to focus instead on the more tangible - arguably - issues of style and structure.

Hoffman's style is easy - she writes with a very light hand. This suits the structure she chose. The story is actually three stories divided into three interconnected parts. Each part is its own novella, with a complete narrative arc. The three novella/chapters are woven loosely together by imagery (feathers, darkness and light), themes (death, redemption, hauntings), setting (London, a mid-class hotel) and the characters. The characters being the strongest link. For example, the too-handsome fiance from the first chapter is the son of the girl in the second chapter. The girl in the second chapter writes a song about the lovers in the third chapter. These are just the largest, simplest threads - the links run from huge to miniscule, but they never feel contrived. Hoffman's characters walk through each other's lives, barely touching or devastating, and forming a web of experience around the titular third angel.

I liked Hoffman's idea of the third angel - maybe it's this idea that drew me. In the second chapter, a doctor tells his daughter that there is the Angel of Life and the Angel of Death. Then there is Third Angel, who walks among us and whom we're supposed to help. This angel is a mirror, so that we might see ourselves and respond. The Third Angel carries with it the sense of regret and responsibility and, oddly enough, hope that runs through the book. Characters lose themselves in a single moment, lose a part of themselves, become ghosts. Sometimes that part is recovered; sometimes it stays lost. 

But Hoffman doesn't preach. She just loosely weaves her tale, and I suspect that every reader will get something different out of it - something reflective of themselves. For my part, I am both impressed and unsettled by how she moved me. It was very unexpected. Based on that alone, I'll be giving her other books another try.

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