Small Angels by Lauren Owen

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Review by Julie Barham

A modern Gothic novel is often a treat, especially if its narrative plays on the edge of reality and the supernatural. This novel finds space between the ordinary excitement of a family event and the uncanny fear of unexplainable events. The past has returned despite all the efforts of those who know, and those who fear. This book is full of the power of the past, those who were wronged many years before, having to be placated. It is the story of preparing for a wedding solidly in the twenty first century, but it remembers old stories  amongst tales of spiritual sisterhood. In a positive way it is a disturbing read, full of things seen out of the corner of the eye, felt more than seen, heard where they should not be. At the centre is a bride to be, Chloe, a relative stranger to the village, logical, determined and confident. Except that from the moment she hears a half story related in a pub, from the time she turns the key in the church of Small Angels, she feels that there is more to clear away than dust and neglect. That her perfect wedding and reception threatens something, someone in the woods, in the church, in the isolated Rose Cottage, and that who ever knows about it has not told her, dare not tell her. It is not only in the church, or the woods, but is a largely silent force that threatens everything.

This superbly atmospheric book is based on the near supernatural element of unwalked woods and the bounds between siblings. The story moves its focus between sisters and a grandmother who knows about the danger Mockbegger Woods pose, and who tries to strictly enforce a way of life on her grandchildren which she hopes will protect them and the villagers.  It is a well-constructed book that keeps the reader guessing with its vivid descriptions of rituals, stories and a girl that questions everything. It does not run along straight lines as befits its subject matter; different voices interrupt, remember, tell stories. The first section is called “Mockbeggar”, how it was, is important to tell stories to the trees, how they keep the stories, take a keen interest in the activities of those who enter its confusing paths. The story of a young man emerges that has a violent, brutal theme, of betrayal and fear. The woods have taken an interest in this man, this child as he grew, and how a family is set aside to remember and placate him. When this situation is challenged by Chloe as she prepares for her wedding, there must be a reckoning of age-old forces.

This book represents many excellent qualities. The writing has real depth and texture, as it takes realistic contemporary actions and casts them into the light of age-old threats, of noises outside doors, of plants that grow suddenly and dangerously, and unspeakable fears. It made me feel as if I was in the wood, apparently harmless, but liable to trap and grab at the unwary. The characters are extremely well written: Chloe’s mixture of confused determination, Kate’s quiet determination and Lucia’s eternal questioning. This is a book that enters the consciousness of the reader at a deep level, and perhaps disturbs sleep. I found it hard to put down on some levels, as I was keen to discover what happens next. The plot is difficult to describe without spoiling the surprises but is absorbing. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable novel and recommend it to those who enjoy a very different read.    

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Julie blogs at Northern Reader, where a version of this review first appeared.

Lauren Owen, Small Angels (Tinder Press, 2022). 978-1472280237, 480 pp., hardback.

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