Love in the Age of Torture: A Review of “In the Company of Angels”

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Examiner.com. Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

Theodore Adorno famously said that there could be no poetry after the atrocities of Auschwitz. Thomas E. Kennedy’s novel, In the Company of Angels, might be said to ask under what circumstances love is possible in the era after Abu Ghraib. Though Kennedy’s novel does not directly mention the abhorrent events in that prison in Iraq, the feelings of revulsion and sadness are present throughout the work.

The protagonist, Nardo, survived torture—and the disappearance of his wife and child—while teaching in Chile under Pinochet. He lives in Copenhagen, attempting to recover from the physical and mental abuse he underwent for teaching “subversive” poetry. The descriptions of what Nardo suffered at the hands of his torturers make difficult reading. In these passages, one cannot help but think of Abu Ghraib even while they remind us that torture is systematic and widespread throughout the world today.

Nardo is helped through his recovery by a doctor in Copenhagen who specializes in helping people recover from torture, but the chief source of his ability to cope comes from his belief that he was visited by angels while he was imprisoned. Nardo believes that the angels came to him and promised him that he would live through his ordeal and move beyond the terrible things he was subjected to. He ultimately comes to see the promise of the angels not in the doctor, but in a woman he sees in a café. He is afraid to speak with her, though, because one of the most scarring messages he heard repeatedly from his torturers was “You will never be a man again for a woman.”

This woman, Michaela, has suffered in her own ways. She was in an abusive marriage that ended after her daughter committed suicide. When we meet Michaela, she is in a relationship with Voss, a young, successful man. It soon becomes apparent, though, that Voss is not a good partner for Michaela either, particularly when his is drunk. Voss is not an interesting or likeable character, and so it is not hard to cheer for Michaela as she detaches herself from this lousy relationship.

If dealing with the loss of her daughter and the collapse of her relationship were not enough, Michaela is also saddled with parents who live in separate institutional wards. Michaela’s father is dying from cancer and her mother has lost most of herself to dementia. Her mother has formed an attachment to another man in the Alzheimer ward, and this “affair” causes all of her father’s pent up anger to erupt at anyone and everyone around him.

Michaela wonders—as do we readers—if the pattern of angry and abusive men is one she is destined to repeat throughout her life. When Nardo finally has the courage to speak with Michaela, we hope to see healing for both of them, a breaking of patterns that have shaped their lives to allow them to live together in a new reality.

It is to Kennedy’s credit that he can bring all this content together without becoming overly sentimental or jaded. Each character has a distinct voice, and Kennedy is able to switch between focus points with ease. The only exception is the sole character who narrates in the first person, Nardo’s doctor. Though he too suffers in his relationship with his wife, he is not nearly as strong a character as the others in the book, and we hardly notice that he disappears in the last third of the novel. Beyond this, though, Kennedy has crafted a strong novel that ultimately answers that love is possible in the age of torture, but it is a love tempered by suffering and loss, but buoyed by hope.

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