The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   48

Knowledge of Angels

by Jill Paton Walsh

Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994
I long to know how many people picked up this book, expecting some fluff about angels, only to find a living fossil: a serious, enjoyable, multi-layered novel of ideas. And not just any ideas: at its core, it is a novel about knowledge. We have knowledge innate and knowledge painfully, fallibly acquired; knowledge from logic and knowledge from experience; a wolf child learning human speech, and lying; innocence and its loss; doubt and faith and disillusion; and even the knowledge of angels:
"That knowledge is called morning knowledge by which an angel knows the things that are to be created, things as they ought to be --- knowledge, for example, of the nature of a straight line. Evening knowledge is that by which things are known in their own nature, as knowing that no line in the world is really straight. There is a problem over the knowledge of angels."
With a little surge of affection, Severo indulged him. "Explain the problem," he said.
"In angels, is there any difference between morning and evening knowledge?" Benedix said. "There are shadows in the morning and in the evening. In an angelic intellect, however, there are no shadows, for angels are very bright mirrors. ..."
All these things, even so classical a device as philosophical dialogues between three men in a rustic villa, form natural parts of the plot. The story --- of an atheist washed ashore on "an island somewhat like Mallorca, but not Mallorca, at a time somewhat like 1450, but not 1450," and his confrontation, intellectual and physical, with the ecclesiatical hierarchy of the island --- is absorbing and moving, and told in prose like "a force of cold clear water," like the Saracen fountain in the middle of the novel:
In front of the house, soaring above the treetops and sparkling in the light, was a column of water rising as high as the ridge tiles before turning over and descending in a spreading feathery plume. A drifting mist from the fountain caught the sun and shimmered with faint shadows.

This book was nominated for the Booker Prize, but lost. Clearly, the judges were mad.

268 pp.
Fiction / Historical Fiction / Philosophy
Out of print as a hardback (ISBN 0-395-68666-0) and trade paperback (ISBN 0-553-337475-3); in print as a mass-market paperback (ISBN 0552997803)
16 June 1998