Saturday, September 27, 2008

Did I Expect Angels?

Did I Expect Angels? by Kathryn Maughan, iUniverse, Inc., 2007, 172 p. (ISBN: 978-0595402595)

Don't let the weird cover put you off. Had I originally seen it in a bookstore, the vehemence of those scratch-out lines would have aroused such a negative reaction that I never would have picked up this novel. Fortunately, I first met it online. And after sampling some excerpts on the author's website, I knew I'd want to read the rest of book.

The story of Did I Expect Angels? is told by two protagonists, Jennifer and Henry. Though widely disparate in age, background, and economic status, both have experienced loss and crushing grief. Unexpectedly, their lives and stories intersect.

Jennifer is a young, grief-stricken widow who cannot seem to recover from the unexpected death of her husband Jack. Despite the help of her loving mother-in-law and the support of her friends and colleagues, Jennifer cannot stop her downwards spiral into clinical depression, a condition for which she had been treated in an earlier period of her life. But now she refuses treatment -- refuses even to acknowledge her condition. So when she finally recognizes the extent to which her self-absorption has blinded her to her daughter's needs, her anguish becomes unbearable, and she makes a grim decision which she intends to be an unalterable. But she didn't take Henry into account.

Henry, a slight acquaintance, is an elderly greeter at the local discount mega-store. He emigrated from Costa Rica forty years ago. He has known poverty, hardship, betrayal, and loss. But with the help of his own unexpected "angel," he has passed through them to a serenity which Jennifer can scarcely grasp. He recognizes the depths of her devastation and decides that the time has come to tell Jennifer his story.

Their stories intertwine in a series of flashbacks inter cut with the immediate present until . . . Well, it's hard for me to write as much as I'd like to about this novel without lapsing into spoilers. I'll only say that this is a story of faith that will not repulse a secular readership.

This is not a Catholic novel, nor even an explicitly Christian one. (If I had to guess the religious affiliation of Jennifer and Jack, I’d have to peg them as some plain-vanilla, nondenominational, Protestants. Or perhaps Unitarians. ) Yet the author has placed them in a universe that is compatible with a Catholic worldview which, to me at least, gives a stronger sense of reality to the novel.

For each of us, as a member of the mystical body of Christ, is linked to every other member, lifting them up or pulling them down by our actions. In that sense, we are all angels at one time or another to those whose lives we touch or who touch ours. And the more I thought about this novel, the more "angels" I began to see in it -- including characters who are unaware of their angelic roles. Even Jennifer herself might be said to have briefly been an angel, when she finally says some things that really need to be said to her sister.

Yet this novel also has a subtle supernatural aspect. At least I think so. Who is that mysterious, yet strangely familiar, man whom Jennifer glimpses in the prologue -- an incident which is reprised near the end of the book? Yes, there is an active human angel who intervenes in Jennifer's affairs, but without the man in the green sweater, would he have made contact with her in time?

Unlike many self-published books, Did I Expect Angels? is very well written, having benefited from a long gestation and multiple rewrites. The story of how it came to be written and published is itself an interesting story which can be found here,

One of the things that I most enjoyed about the novel is that the stories of the two protagonists are recounted in their own distinctive voices. I particularly liked Henry's segments. In the novel he's described as having "a strong Spanish accent . . . untouched by forty years of speaking English." The author does not write his narration in dialect, but she captures the cadence of a native Spanish speaker who would naturally be mixing little Spanish phrases into his English, an English which would be unconsciously superimposed onto his native Spanish grammar.

Maughan described her technique to me:

I initially wrote much of Henry's part in Spanish, and then had my mother (a Spanish professor) correct it. She noted a few things, like false conditional: in English, we can say "I would go to the store a lot when I was young," but in Spanish they don't do that. This made me realize that he would have problems with "would" and "could" and "should" and the related tenses. So after the corrections I translated it very literally. I didn't do this with his entire portion, just about 15 pages of it. Once I had done that, I was into the rhythm enough myself that I could "hear" him speaking and compose in his voice.
This process gives an incredible feeling of authenticity to Henry's segments. Though Hispanic, I am not myself a native Spanish speaker. But I have studied the language, and I have enough experience of the sort of English spoken by some of my older relatives to realize that Maughan did a very good job. (Okay, so I'm a language and writing geek! Yes, I got excited when I realized that bits of Henry's English phrasing indicate that he is thinking in the subjunctive, a tense that is common in Spanish but almost extinct in English.)

You can sample the voices of the two main characters by reading the excerpts posted here and here. Then perhaps, like me, you too will be eager to read the rest of this book which is conveniently available from

1 comment:

Anna said...

Great review! The parts about language were quite interesting. I've added this book to my towering TBR list!