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The Mark of the Angel

by Nancy Huston

If Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces asks, “can there be poetry after the Holocaust?” Nancy Huston’s latest novel asks, “can there be music?” While Huston is less swirling in her sentences, less abandoned in her plot than Michaels, she is nevertheless determined to capture the legacy of Nazi Germany’s slaughter. The Mark of the Angel warrants accolades.

Huston, born in Calgary and a resident of France for 20 years, has published seven novels, translating herself from French into English. With many honours in France, she also won a controversial Governor General’s Award here.

In other novels, Huston’s braininess has sparkled at the expense of emotion. She devises cool, cryptic plots and is adept at line-drawing the self-obsessed intellectual. But her writing can seem chilly and hard. Not this time. Here, though the plot is standard – poor postwar German girl marries Parisian super-flautist but is unmoved until she meets someone more like herself – the novel’s structure, characterization, tone – Huston’s craft – sustain the eloquence.

New holocausts run alongside the love story, the war in Algeria for example. Huston moves from sweltering sex and sweet babies (yes, at the same time) to how “French boys fresh out of secondary school make young Arab bodies jerk spasmodically by attaching them to the electrodes of a magnet.”

To negotiate such abrupt shifts, an all-observing narrator is charming, intimate, sometimes playful, implicating readers from the beginning – “Our story begins in the month of May 1957” – to the end – “And that’s the end? Oh, no, I promise you it’s not.” For an inexperienced writer, this device might be all gimmick. But Huston is seductive; she wants not just voyeurs but also participants, secret-keepers. If we resist, we are all complicit in war’s atrocities.

Huston interrogates the role of artists in a morally debased world – “What a godsend for novelists, that Hitler!” Her musicians are neurotic but also culpable and yet heroic: they translate the defiled into beauty. So, too, Nancy Huston.


Reviewer: Lorna Jackson

Publisher: McArthur & Company


Price: $21.95

Page Count: 221 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 1-55278-084-8

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 1999-9

Categories: Fiction: Novels