It is rare to find a book where you are completely familiar with its settings and themes from the first page, where some of the character’s experiences mirror some of your own. One of the best things about Twitter has to be discovering new authors, books and even presses via posts and recommendations. I had seen Jonathan Walker’s The Angels of L19 from Weatherglass Books being shared and when I got in touch about getting an ebook, not only did he arrange a copy but he also generously offered his essay ‘I was a Teenage Christian.’ (It is one of our most-read posts, so don’t miss it!) From the first words of the essay, I knew that this world would be very familiar to me, as I have a family connection to a similar church to the one at the heart of the story, the only difference being that ours was in North Liverpool and the one in The Angels of L19 is in the south of the city, in Garston, where Jack Byrne’s Liverpool story Under the Bridge is set – to make another connection!
As The Angels of L19 starts, Robert and Tracey are, like many 80s teens, obsessed by music. Tracey is teaching herself to play the drums, trying to match Stephen Morris’s computer-assisted rhythms via her Walkman and drum kit, while Robert looks for hidden religious meaning in U2 lyrics – as I once did and as every music-loving Church-going kid back then must have done! Robert is a ‘bit odd,’ perhaps, ‘going through a stage,’ as might be said of him. He counts things, walks into church with a paper bag over his head and performs Smiths-influenced skits at church and the summer Merseyside Christian Youth Camp. Some of this is based on the author’s own experiences, as you will know from reading ‘I Was a Teenage Christian.’ So some familiar situations, but since being baptised at camp, Robert has started seeing strange things, including what he calls a presence:
It stands in the centre of the room, where it arranges the other occupants around itself like the figures on a clock face. Tick tock on the mantelpiece. Or is it coming from the presence? Its body is ivory; at other times, wax. Always hairless, smooth. No articulations or openings, apart from a bubbled vertical slit in the centre of its head, like the line of glue on the wallpaper. An egg. Sealed, but waiting to split.
Thinking it to be an angel, he waits for the message he is sure it is going to bring. Robert lives with his auntie and uncle while his father is away working, Tracey lives next door with her church elder dad. They have both lost their mothers, Tracey’s to illness and Robert’s for reasons that become clearer as the story moves on. Music is an escape and although she is in the year above him at school, they meet at church and youth groups, hanging out at the home of Mark, a Falklands veteran who is an unofficial church leader and who hosts a Bible study group for the teenagers. With friends including Kevin, another elder’s son, and recent convert and Mod, Paul, they are ‘good kids,’ dedicated to their religion and to each other, having opinions about different versions of the Bible, unafraid to ‘bear witness’ in assembly.
Faith is a story. You tell it to yourself; then you tell it to other people. And when they hear your story, it confirms their own.
As Robert’s visions become more frequent, he tries to ask for help, telling Tracey and his other friend Jenny, a teacher and theology graduate, what is going on with him. Tracey warns Mark too, but what are seen as his eccentricities get in the way of making connections that could help him. While he is sure he is seeing angels, once the revelations come, there is a darker intent. The depictions of Robert’s increasingly disordered thoughts and dreams, and the gulf between what everyone else sees and what he experiences – how frightening and real and uncontrollable it seems to him – are vivid and powerful.
He puts his hands over his ears. There’s a sea inside him too: his head is a conch shell. Concentrate. There’s something else, trapped with him deep in the belly of the whale; something scuttling out from inside the conch, unfolding itself.
Meanwhile the Liverpool around them is a city in a fight to survive, with strikes and protests as Militant takes on Thatcher and the proposed ‘managed decline.’ Merseyside churches were looking forward to a visit by a big American evangelist (you might know the name of the real person behind the real event, but here it is changed for legal reasons) to herald a renewal of faith. For Robert, the event signals an escalation and a spiralling out of control. Without wanting to give too much away, Robert is a damaged boy causing damage, both to himself and to others, before a jump in time offers a glimpse into the characters’ futures and perhaps a chance for recovery.
The Angels of L19 is a unique story, blending a coming-of-age tale with supernatural and even horror elements too. Horror isn’t a genre I read a lot of, being a bit of a scaredy-cat about things that might keep me awake at night, but even without knowing all of Jonathan Walker’s influences, I was swept away with the ambition of the novel, which deals with big questions of love, evil, faith and redemption, while creating compelling characters of the two leads and the cast around them. If I was worried about how a novel might deal with the kind people I met at church, the ones whose rock-solid faith was like the location of the wise man’s house in the Sunday school song, and how that faith would be depicted, I shouldn’t have been.
The Angels of L19 treats religion and characters who are religious with care, showing them using it not to coerce or judge others, but to try to figure out the world around them and how to navigate it. (Although I did enjoy the one member of the congregation who is holding fast to the old rules about women wearing hats and not talking in meetings!) It shows how they don’t have all the answers, they don’t even agree at times, but they take strength from each other, even in the darkest days. I especially loved how Robert and Tracey and their friends mix profound and deep discussions with more worldly things like dating, band practice and Time Bandits and this is a book I am sure will stay with me and that I will be coming back to read again, as well as recommending to all those with similar memories and those without.
I received a copy of The Angels of L19 from Weatherglass Books, but that has not influenced my review.