The facts of tragedy can be offensively clean and unadorned. I learned this a few days before Christmas, when a friend charged me with the task of disseminating the information that someone she knew had committed suicide. Each email I wrote and call I made was cold and direct: a chronological, bullet-point list of what and how, lacking why. It was an exercise in control, muting the reality of the thing and ignoring the clamour of emotional turmoil ringing in our ears like a bell. In the most extreme catastrophes, there is no other topic of conversation than the inconceivable thing at hand. Yet because it is impossible to face tragedy in every moment, we fill time with blandness as a coping mechanism. In everything that is said, we pretend to discuss something else, an inadequate pause before returning to the unresolvable subject. A successful narrative of fictional tragedy works in much the same way. Its plot points are so extreme that the actions and dialogue surrounding them require a pallid looseness, even tedium, to prevent the reader from recoiling in both repulsion and exhaustion.
Lilian Nattel’s Web of Angels opens on pregnant, 16-year-old Heather Edwards, a deeply troubled girl who has put a bullet in her head. The baby girl she is carrying is only a few weeks from being due; in the moments following Heather’s suicide, her mother cuts the baby out of her belly with a kitchen knife. The “birth” represents the epitome of hope in the most gruesome circumstances, a literal squirming mass to force the notion that life does indeed go on. In this horrifying opening chapter, the reader is given the what and the how; the remainder of the novel slowly unfolds the why. In doing so, it mirrors the same arduous processes we use in life to comprehend and tolerate extremes.
Web of Angels employs careful details to convey the minutiae of coping with violence, and how repellent the process can be. The novel is obsessed with the deceptive, shiny surfaces of things, locating the management of catastrophe largely in the gendered sphere of the domestic. Familial tasks and daily chores act as necessary distractions, providing structure to a community threatening to crumble under the weight of its evolving tragedies. Nattel’s craft lies in utilizing the ordinary to amplify the appalling. There are many uncomfortable interactions in living rooms and around dinner tables: “[T]his was a family conversation and so had nothing to do with the words being said but with other matters entirely, things far under the surface, swimming like fish in the pure yin of the ocean depths.”
To complicate matters, the book’s protagonist, Sharon Lewis (whose son is dating Heather’s sister), is diagnosed with dissociative personality disorder (DPD). Nattel succeeds in the daunting literary task of depicting the many characters who exist within Sharon’s mind. Her “multiples” are thoughtfully and artfully incorporated into the horrifying mystery of the teen’s suicide, avoiding the blithe inaccuracies that so often accompany portrayals of the disorder.
It becomes apparent that Heather took her life to end ugliness of a sort that no child should endure, and that her younger sister, Cathy, is also in danger. Rather than adding more unrelieved pain to the book, Sharon’s mental illness makes her uniquely equipped to handle things, and becomes the key to rescuing Cathy from her sister’s fate.
Inspired by Nattel’s own experience with childhood sexual abuse, and the people she met in online chat rooms who helped facilitate her healing, the narrative serves to destigmatize DPD, in part by asserting the value of the disorder in coping with tragedy, and by demonstrating that those suffering from it are no less functional or capable than anyone else. Sharon, while harbouring the secret of her illness, is lauded in her community as a wife and mother with a knack for “keeping it all together.” Her relationships with her husband and therapist are among the book’s richest and most revealing, and provide the reader with a close understanding of a condition that is too often sensationalized in the media.
So many facts of suffering are incorporated into Web of Angels that listing them would make the book appear too uncomfortable, even painful, to endure. Yet Nattel is adept at emphasizing how evil is often couched in the banal. Nattel’s method allows us to appreciate the admirable endurance of her characters and the relentless impulse to plod onward, even through the worst circumstances imaginable. The novel’s ultimate message is that people, despite feeling flawed and unequipped to handle what life throws at them, find the strength to prevail.