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After reading Nicole Brossard’s ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’, I thought of exploring more works by French-Canadian authors when Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat recommended ‘The Mark of the Angel’. I got it recently and finished reading it today. Here is what I think.

The Mark Of The Angel By Nancy Huston

The story told in ‘The Mark of the Angel’ starts in 1957 in Paris. It has been twelve years since the end of the Second World War, but some things don’t seem to have changed much. There is trouble in Algeria and French troops are trying to get the situation under control, sometimes by violence. A young German woman, Saffie, lands up in Paris. She goes to work as a maid at the home of a young flautist, Raphael. Raphael falls in love with her at first sight. After a few months, he proposes to Saffie and she accepts his proposal. Raphael’s mother doesn’t like Germans because of the happenings during the Second World War and disapproves of the match. Still, Raphael goes ahead and marries Saffie. But there is something about Saffie. She is detached about everything. She doesn’t show any emotion. She doesn’t seem to love Raphael as he loves her. Raphael feels that things will change after a while. But they don’t. Then Saffie and Raphael have a son. Raphael feels that now that Saffie has become a mother she will change and genuine warmth will blossom in her heart. But still nothing happens. One day Raphael sends Saffie to a workshop to get his flute repaired. Saffie meets András at the workshop and it is love at first sight for her. Her heart opens to him. And András responds back. And Saffie blooms like a flower. Raphael notices the change. He concludes that being a mother and a wife has finally made his wife open her heart to the world. He is delighted. Saffie and András start meeting regularly. Saffie brings her son Emil everytime. She also continues to be a dutiful wife to Raphael. She lives these two parallel lives – as a wife to Raphael out of necessity, and as a lover to András out of choice – without much trouble. It works for her. Meanwhile the trouble in Algeria explodes and it ends up with violence in the streets of Paris. During this troubled time Saffie and András share secrets about each other, about their past. Saffie is German and András is Jewish and so some of the secrets they share are not going to be comfortable. But still their love binds them together. And Emil loves András like his own father. And then András starts collaborating with some of the Algerian freedom fighters. And things take a turn for the worse. What happens to Saffie? Why was she detached before she met András? What secret was she suppressing? Will she find happiness with András? What happens to Raphael? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story. (This is probably a spoiler. So please be forewarned. As you might have guessed, a love story like this where the heroine leads parallel lives, never ends well. There are some surprising revelations, a shocking discovery, some partings, a heartbreak and some unanswered questions in the end. To find out the nature of these, you should read the book.)

I liked ‘The Mark of the Angel’. Nancy Huston’s prose is very conversational and in many places she talks to the reader directly while telling the story. It is like sitting in front of the fire on a winter night, listening to a story told by our favourite aunt. There is also a gentle sense of humour throughout the book, even when it talks about serious topics like war, the holocaust, violence and death. Saffie is a fascinating character and her detachment from the world and the weight of sadness that she seemed to carry in her heart made me fall in love with her. When Saffie meets András and falls in love with him and opens up to him and her heart starts blooming like a flower, one can’t help but feel happy for her. Even though one is worried about the consequences and one fears whether their love will survive the situation and the damning revelations that follow. I liked most of the characters in the story – there were no good and bad ones, but most of them were normal people trying to find a little happiness and a little peace in the middle of a chaotic world. The book also portrays Paris of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the culture of those times quite well. I learnt a little bit about the Algerian issue of the ‘50s and ‘60s after reading this book – it didn’t show the French in good light. The way the books weaves the stories of Saffie, András, Emil and Raphael and the people in their lives with the story of the fight for Algerian independence and the way it shows how the weight of history changes and distorts individual lives is quite interesting. It also made me feel sad, because it showed how difficult it is to find happiness and freedom in the world, even if we try our best.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Mark of the Angel’. I would love to read more of Nancy Huston’s books. I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

For the first time in his life, he feels that beauty and necessity are converging in his heart, as they do in a Bach fugue.

Raphael plays the flute. His playing is getting better by the day, as anguish has come to lend added complexity to his ingenuous, overly optimistic nature – enhancing rather than supplanting his mad love, slipping into the interstices of his music and giving it new shades, denser and more subtle shades than ever before. In the adagio movements in particular, every note he produces is like the shimmering surface of a pond beneath which dark treasures lurk.

Yes, adultery can give you wings. As a general rule, the flight is brief and the fall brutal. And yet, watching the young woman move off towards the Seine with her pram, Mademoiselle Blanche’s heart warms in spite of herself. It’s not easy to advise caution to a person in the thrall of such blatant happiness. All you can do is hope the damage will be limited.

In every tale of passion there comes a turning point. It can happen sooner or later but as a rule it happens fairly soon. The vast majority of couples miss the curve and go careening off the road, flip over and crash into a wall, their wheels spinning madly in the air. The reason for this is simple. Contrary to what you’d believed during the first hours, the first days, at most the first months, of the enchantment, the person you love hasn’t radically transformed you. When you miss the turn, the wall you run into is the wall of your Self. Yes, there it is again – every bit as nasty, as petty and as mediocre as it was before. You haven’t been magically healed. Your wounds are still raw. Your nightmares begin again. And you’re filled with rage at the other person – because, as it turns out, you haven’t undergone a metamorphosis, love hasn’t solved all life’s problems, and you’re not floating ecstatically heavenward – but rather, as usual, pulling your own weight down here on Earth.

“You know, Mama,” says Emil as they head home, “every time the rain falls on my cheeks, it feels like I’m crying. Did that happen to you, when you were little?”

“Yes, Schatz. Yes, it did.”

Have you read Nancy Huston’s ‘The Mark of the Angel’? What do you think about it?

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