I am trying to think for the life of me why I haven’t read any of Tracey Chevaliers books before ‘Falling Angels’? I think I had gotten the impression they might be a bit historically twee. Where do we get these subconscious ideas from? However having been recommended it by some of you and by some of the other tour guides at Highgate Cemetery (which plays a huge part in the setting of the book) I mentioned it enough around the house for The Converted One to get a copy for me as a surprise belated birthday treat.
When opening the book I instantly got a shock. Wife swapping? In 1901 (well New Years eve of 1900)? Didn’t that all come in during the sixties with car keys and some such? Apparently not and Tracey Chevalier uses the opening of the morning after the night before to instantly put us into the deeply unhappy mindset of one of ‘Falling Angels’ main characters Kitty Coleman. Kitty married for love and yet now several years on and a daughter (Maude who is also a pivotal character) later on she isn’t quite happy with her lot and spends her time either in books or strolling round Highgate Cemetery. She is in essence bored and unfulfilled and it’s the changes in her that often as not move the story on but it’s not a story just about Kitty.
The day after Queen Victoria’s death all of England goes into morning and many head to their nearest cemetery and that’s where Kitty and her family meet The Waterhouse’s, a family not quite of the Coleman’s status, who have a family grave their with an angel that the Coleman’s object to. Being polite Victorian society they say nothing and make polite conversation. The families’ daughters however manage to go off and have an adventure, meeting gravedigger apprentice Simon, and become the best of friends drawing these two families into an acquaintance neither are sure they want. It’s these two families and the lives they lead after this and how they affect the others that the book follows and as we all know some families have some big secrets. Along with the domestic drama’s Chevalier also features the themes of a country in a time of change not just of monarchs but a whole era in which cars replace horses, fashions and customs change and a women’s movement starts (if you are interested in the suffragettes this is very much a book for you as it’s a huge plot).
Chevalier manages to fit a huge amount of change in a rather remarkable time in history effortlessly into this book. It could be too big and vast a period to cover because it’s so full and yet your divulging all this information easily because of the wonderful narratives. Yes, I said narratives and we aren’t talking one or two or even three here, I think by the end I counted ten from each member of the family (the two girls Maude and Lavinia are two wonderfully polar voices and very entertaining) but that of the gravediggers apprentice, the maids, the mother in law and the cook. Rather than being complicated each characters voice rings true and a full picture of these families is painted. I thought it was marvellously done.
I will admit before I started it I thought ‘Highgate better be in this a lot’ because I am slightly obsessed at the moment and didn’t know if the rest would interest me but it did greatly. I didn’t rush through it because I wanted to savour every page, every voice and I will admit I couldn’t have guessed the endings either. I am definitely going to read more Chevalier, where is good to head to next? Has she anymore set in the Victorian period as I could wallow with her there for ages all over again?