When the angels invaded the plotline of “Supernatural”, I stopped watching weekly.
I prefer stone rabbits and hedgehogs in my flowerbeds, over white winged statues.
And when a girlfriend told me that the child she lost at full-term is an angel now, I struggled to keep my face expressionless, silently repeating to myself how comforting it could be.
But Amanda Leduc had me, in just a few pages, believing in angels.
There is the power of storytelling. Perhaps it does always begin with The Word.
(I won’t say exactly how she hooked me, but I will say it has something to do with Chickenhead, who is my favourite character. See, another impossible thing. That there is a character named Chickenhead, and that she would endear herself to me so quickly.)
The Miracles of Ordinary Men begins by introducing readers to Sam. He teaches English. He is growing wings.
Readers adopt his confusion. Even readers who don’t believe in angels. Or Catholicism. Or the Tooth Fairy.
“He’d been Catholic, just as he’d believed in the Tooth Fairy. His mother still said prayers for him. They weren’t helping, obviously.”
Sam doesn’t think that he believes in any of those things, but he cannot deny the wings that are sprouting from his back. (His confusion is expressed in clear, often humourous, observations; Amanda Leduc’s sentences are sleek, leaving room for both doubt and belief.)
What he remains uncertain about is whether these wings are a blessing or a curse.
And this is not surprising, because the novel’s epigraph is via Søren Kierkegaard: “And is it not true in this instance also that one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath?”
What does it mean to be blessed, to be cursed? What does it mean when most people cannot see Sam’s wings, even when he flaps them to catch their attention? What does anything mean? What does it matter, whether things mean anything?
“Lilah crumples her napkin onto the plate and watches it unfold, slowly, like a flower. This is what she’s learned, from years of travelling and searching and needing something else: that there isn’t something else, that some people will forever look at the world and see broken things that they can’t change.”
Lilah is the second voice in the novel, introduced in a chapter numbered ‘X’ which follows Sam’s introductory chapter, ‘Ten’.
Readers are alerted that there is more than one way to approach the same idea – even with something as straightforward as counting.
Readers are also reminded that while one character inhabits a single narrative, there are multiple narratives, each inhabited by their own set of characters living their own realities, asking their own sets of questions.
And, when the next chapter begins, readers also realize that there is countdown of sorts.
Whether what awaits is celebration or devastation remains to be seen. Or, understood. Or, believed.
““It’s a crutch,’ he said. ‘A cushion. People can’t face reality, so they make up stories and cling to belief.’
‘But everyone does that,’ she pointed out. ‘Some people kneel to a cross and some people get mired in quantum physics. In the end, it’s all the same.’
But what is the alternative?
‘”Normal people are mediocre,’ he says. ‘Is that what you want? Is that truly who you want to be?'”
Is there nothing between? Between the cross and the formulae? Between the wings and the concrete?
Are questions like that even valid? Is the contrast imagined, the division flawed?
“How terrifying, that she can be one thing and another all at once.”
And do readers believe Lilah’s observation? When just a hundred pages earlier, she was saying: “Together they were broken; the three of them. So different, and so lost.”
Now readers see that Lilah is, literally, fractured, just when she believes herself whole.
What does this mean? What are we to do with such contradictions?
With the idea of these wings?
“The wing slid through his fingers like water. It was soft, and yet not-soft –the wispy down of each single feather a mask for the ribbed cartilage that lay beneath. […] Perhaps he could fly now, if he wanted. If he gathered the courage to try. The world both above and below, and people spread beneath him like children, so completely unaware of how their lives could change.”
“For a moment he couldn’t remember why he’d awoken, and then he moved his shoulder and felt it, that sharp spike of pain. Deep breath. He turned his head slowly and saw that the left wing had somehow become tangled in the sheets in the space between the bed and the nightstand. He twisted around and a a muscle in his back popped, then popped again.”
With the idea of contrasting ideas inhabiting the same space.
At one level, Amanda Leduc’s novel is rooted in story, and these questions erupt around the characters of Samuel and Delilah (among others whose names appear to be lifted from Bible stories).
At another level, there is direct posing of – and ruminating over – questions about doubt and faith. What transforms us? What nourishes us?
“’If God is truly in your veins, gentlemen – changing your skin, changing your bones – there won’t be anything left of you when it’s over. Anything else is a toy, by comparison.’ Now he was quiet, sad. His words settled among them like the ash that had begun to drift, steady and slow, from Sam’s own wings. ‘As to the rest – if I were God, the world would make me ill too.’”
Although The Miracles of Ordinary Men is not about declarations or pronouncements, this bit does stand out:
“‘We are here to be pulled out of ourselves. Pulled to God or pulled to other people – it doesn’t matter.'”
You don’t need to believe in angels, only in the power of story. In the power of a storyteller to pull readers out of themselves and into the pages of a novel.
Whether you see holes in the nighttime sky or stars, Amanda Leduc knows how to pull readers close.
Have you read this first novel? Or, do you plan to? Are there angels in your flowerbeds?