Jennifer Quist’s Love Letters of the Angels of Death is a taut novel which pulls the reader into the story with only a few paragraphs.
Not only through plot, though the first paragraph is a bold invitation to read on: “It was only a matter of time before we found human remains. Maybe that’s true for everyone. This is how it happened for us.”
But through style and voice. Just a few paragraphs into the story, the narrative slips from describing the events that ‘we’ and ‘us’ have experienced and begins to directly address ‘you’.
Technically, it’s not ‘you’ the reader, but someone else; still, nothing engages a reader like a direct address, even if it’s a case of misunderstanding, as it is here.
The ‘you’ is not the reader, in fact, but the narrator’s wife, Brigs’ wife. And if the perspective is a little disorienting, that is deliberate. There is something askew: here, there are human remains.
Getting acquainted with Brigs under these circumstance, as he is discovering the body of a family member, casts his relationship with the reader in a paradoxically distancing and intimate light.
“For the first few hours we spend inside in the trailer, we walk around the outline, reverent and ginger. But by the time we leave at the end of the day we’ve learned to stomp right over it, as if its edges weren’t lightly streaked with dried, burgundy blood.”
It is a peculiar choice artistically, this form of address, but it is consistently and credibly employed and, once the full story is understood, it is impossible to understand the tale having been told any other way.
“‘I think I’ve figured out what happened,’ you finally tell me. And you walk through the trailer narrating the story in the physical evidence, like a voice-over at the end of one of those Agatha Christie movies…on Sunday nights.”
This is not a simple process of discovery for the reader, however. There is no voice-over, only the reader’s gradual and tentative assembly of events. For an impatient reader, this might be a source of frustration.
Like the young boy in the funeral parlor, forced to wait while adults make decisions he cannot comprehend, the reader might grow antsy.
“You’ve had enough and you’re pulling him out by his thin white arms. He doesn’t like anything about the wine-coloured quiet of the consultation room.”
At the sentence-level, this story is constructed with basic building blocks. The language is simple and the style clean, though it’s easy to imagine, for instance, that peculiar kind of quiet described and the contrast that this young boy’s presence provokes.
If the reader takes a step back, the view of the story is more like a mind-map than a slide presentation, however; descriptions and recollections of deaths that this couple has experienced in the past are clustered around the central idea of loss.
These experiences are not exactly shared chronologically, but the accumulation of experiences creates a mood and develops character in a deliberate and memorable manner. This is essential to the novel’s success.
“I guess we still haven’t slowed down enough to properly explain what’s happening to our own kids. I’m leaning over the bathroom sink trying to hold my necktie out of the way as I spit out mouthfuls of toothpaste when I hear Scottie, our oldest son, ask you ‘What is a funeral?’
You only pause for a split second before you answer. ‘It’s kind of like a wedding reception – only the bride has to be a dead person.'”
Jennifer Quist invites the reader to a literary funeral, but she doesn’t provide the card with directions and details until the end of her debut novel: it’s definitely worth the wait.