I’m always a bit suspicious about an older bloke inventing a protagonist with three delicious women on his plate. So I read C K Stead’s The Necessary Angel as a wistful story with more than a touch of fantasy.
As an exploration of relationships I did find I had to suspend belief. Are women (especially young, attractive and bright women) really so susceptible to a middle-aged married man’s charms?
Even Max’s high achieving wife, who disdainfully ejects him from the family home and children, seems unrealistically warm and understanding as she sets him up downstairs in a shag pad. You don’t get the feeling that they are so particularly estranged that he would immediately start exploring other women, it is hardly a way to win back the affection of his wife and continue a relationship of mutual respect with his children. Perhaps a holiday might have been a better way to re-charge the marriage rather than bringing a couple of hot young colleagues home to bed.
But this is Paris and the additional love-interest women are both embroiled in other relationships anyway. So, all good, then.
Paris is gorgeous to walk around with C K Stead. He has the poet’s ability to give an intense feeling of place in so few words. I did find myself re-reading some lovely phrases over again and out loud. It feels real. Narrow streets, leafy squares, roadside eating and the November wind. The incidental characters, too, are perfect: the concierge, the beggars, Skipper the dog. The lead character doesn’t need to be a New Zealander – a Brit would serve just as well, and Max, who lecturers at the Nouvelle Sorbonne on war poetry, feels more European than any kiwi I know. But I still have enough of a chip on my shoulder to get a bit of a buzz when a kiwi (albeit a fictional one) has a prestigious starring role.
By any other author I would suggest the academic citations are slightly pretentious. Of course this is a story about literary academics and C K Stead has every right to name drop Flaubert, Amis, Lessing, Naipaul, Mansfield, Houellebecq, Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemmingway, Edward Thomas, Nabokov, Roland Barthes, Claude Simon, Wallace Stevens, Gurdjeff, Robbe-Grillet … come on! Keep up! Perhaps it was the characters intimidating me rather than the author (in which case, great writing!), but I did rather felt Stead glaring at me every time I was obliged to hit google.
There’s a sub-plot, the mystery of who stole the (so-called) Cezanne. The painting itself has a strange provenance which makes interesting reading, but we know who stole it. The sadness and wantonness of the result of this event I thought rather wasted as a finale. Holy shit! That’s not an ending, there will obviously be a discovery and a reckoning and what happens then, to Max and the easy truce with his forgiving wife? This sub-plot would have made a cracking main story.
Je Suis Charlie! is a sudden loud note against the background noise of political unrest, migration and terrorism – a rise in the tension that flickers in the corner of the story like an unwatched TV. The Necessary Angel of the title could be many things, Helen’s lithium, Helen herself, Sylvie, or tout le monde who come out onto the Paris boulevards to stand against terror.
Put your sophisticated socks on, settle down in a quiet place and do read this book. Prepare to be agitated and frustrated by the characters, challenged by the story and then suddenly and often delighted by the very elegant writing.