‘The Angels of L19’ is undoubtedly one of the literary highlights of 2021
The beautifully written The Angels of L19 takes us back to Liverpool 1984, building a fascinating story around a small community of Evangelical Christians who all attend the same local church, go on the same camps and whose lives are united around Jesus. First up, the church aspect of the novel is perfectly pitched and 100% convincing, partly because the author experienced growing up in this type of environment and the insider track he provides is one of the great strengths of the story. It is comparable to Jenn Ashworth’s outstanding The Friday Gospels which takes a look at a Mormon family from within the walls, neither novel provides a contrasting viewpoint from out with the community and the reader is treated to an intricate closeup of the innerworkings of the belief system from a unique teenage perspective.
A second feature of The Angels of L19 which blew me away was the fact that Jonathan Walker does not judge or poke fun at Evangelicals, which can be easy targets for ridicule in horror or wider fiction. Instead, he builds a beguiling and convincing story which utilises closely observed realism and unsettling fantasy with a strong Biblical feel to it via the use of Scripture and the internal questions the characters ask of themselves. Evangelical Christians believe in the everyday supernatural and when the main character is visited by beings, which he believes to be angels, his behaviour begins to be erratic and instead of going to the church elders for guidance he bottles everything up and proceedings begin to escalate, which is the main focus of the novel. If you empathised with the pain of the disturbed young woman in the recent art house horror hit Saint Maud, then this novel explores some of the same areas of faith. The Angels of L19 is far from a standard or traditional horror novel, you might even classify it ‘Quiet Horror’ which is character driven, has virtually no bloodletting and does not rely upon big scenes or cheap shocks. Instead, it gets seriously under your skin and refuses to budge long after the powerful final pages are concluded.
In one of his blog posts Walker mentions that his elevator pitch for the book is “Donnie Darko but all the characters are evangelical Christians” which really nails the strangeness of his creation. Fifteen-year-old Robert was an outstanding central character and the ambiguity of his visions is not a million miles away from Donnie and his six-foot rabbit Frank. Along the way the story takes in undiagnosed mental illness, eating disorders and bereavement, all of which add extra levels of reality which were equally captivating and bleak. Bearing in mind the story is set in 1984, an era dominated by the Miner’s Strike, Margaret Thatcher and a period were getting in touch with your ‘feelings’ was not particularly high up on the agenda.
Walker also mentions in his blog that the novel fits the criteria of ‘Christian Fantasy’ as defined by Colin Manlove, as the work is framed entirely within the Christian framework. However, this book is not preachy or attempting to convert, but alternatively takes Christian belief and the supernatural seriously in the conviction that an engagement with more meaningful questions is worth the effort. A person I know very well grew up in a Christian sect which is not dissimilar to this church where it was common for members to vomit up demons into buckets and something very similar happens in this story, with little or no fanfare. If you have any interest in the differences of various types of Christianity then this book is fascinating, for example, there is a type of exorcism performed, but it is a million miles away from what you might see with William Peter Blatty or any of the subsequent Exorcist films with the potential supernatural being deliberately kept low key and bland.
The use of music in The Angels of L19 was truly sublime, repeatedly returning to U2, with Robert seeking for a deeper Christian message within Bono’s lyrics, with the story taking in many other bands such as The Smiths and their performances on legendary TV show Top of the Pops. The novel beautifully illustrates the power of music, its discovery and the impact it can have on young lives. Robert and his friend Tracey, who also plays a major role in the story, do not exactly see music as a ‘vice’ (but neither is it truly Christian) and Tracey openly questions whether she would ever be able to give it up, attempting to balance her love for Jesus and music. A big ask for any teenager.
I loved Tracey and her friendship with Robert was another soaring highlight of the novel. Aged sixteen she was a year older than the boy, but as she perceived his faith to be so strong he was the natural leader of the pair and she looked up to him. Tracey also featured in some truly memorable scenes, when she was being baptised (totally submerged in water) and trying to connect with Jesus, she had the famous New Order song ‘Blue Monday’ stuck in her head! The two characters contrasted each other, but also had many similarities, but combined provided the reader with a deep exploration of how faith might work in teenagers and the trials they face in modern society.
The Angels of L19 is littered with powerful scenes, many of which would be very personal to Christians, and one of my favourites was when the two teenagers proclaimed their faith in a school assembly. Although Robert and Tracey knew other ‘Born Again’ Christians in their school they all kept it very quiet and after a church leader from their youth group asked them to publicly proclaim their faith, Tracey decided to stand behind Robert and I found this to be a rather beautiful sequence.
This novel is a work of literary fiction which began life as part of a doctorate in creative writing, so if you are after head-spinning or the gates to Hell opening then look elsewhere, however, if you enjoy thoughtful and mediative explorations of faith then The Angels of L19 gives the reader much to ponder but provides no easy answers. The sense of time and place adds extra flavour and this book is a million miles from kitsch ‘Christian message’ fiction the likes of CS Lewis provide, however, whatever you believe this is a fascinating and intelligent read. I have to say, I was shocked by the ending and you may wonder whether redemption is ever truly possible. Highly original, thought-provoking, personal, and undoubtedly one of the literary highlights of 2021.
The Angels of L19: Reimagining Religious Belief in Novel Form
The Angels of L19 by Jonathan Walker
There’s more than one way to be born again. Liverpool, 1984. The teenagers at Garston Chapel are the same as the rest of us: The Smiths, U2, crushes, football, mates. The grimy, low-down politics of the Thatcher era casting deep shadows in this proud and broken city, but the kids have got other things on their minds … Jesus Christ Our Lord for one. Almost normal kids, then. But Robert isn’t at all normal. Because Robert is visited by angels – if that’s what they are. He can’t tell a soul about his secret. All anyone can see is his strange behaviour as he desperately seeks to understand what they mean, what they want from him. As Robert’s two worlds merge, the real and the visionary intersect with increasing intensity and what is being asked of him becomes terrifyingly clear. The Angels of L19 is a moving and entirely original story of young lives at the confluence of faith and doubt, angels and demons, life and death. And where redemption is possible, even for those we think might be lost forever.
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