Over the course of my book club attending life, two things have been rare occurrences. One, a consensus between all members on their like (or dislike, in this case) of a book. And second, that opinion being completely at odds with the vast majority, if Goodreads reviews are anything to go by. Oh, and by virtue of being a Booker Prize nominee.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels managed to tick both of these boxes. I didn’t know anything of the author before reading other than she became a published author late (in her earlier 60s I believe). So I came to the novel with no pre-existing prejudices. I struggled to get into it, struggled in the middle, struggled with the metaphor of the ghost story that abruptly takes place towards the end, and struggled with the ending itself. That in itself is unusual for me, in that I tend to take some enjoyment out of everything I read, but I finished the book mentally frazzled and more than a little puzzled.
Maybe just me, I thought, but everyone at Germany Book Club had similar feelings. Most had trouble with the university section that bookends the novel, which is essentially a dry satire on the puffed up ridiculousness of the physics department at a Cambridge house, but also trying to make serious points on the limits of science in human experience, all through the eyes of student Fred Fairly. Or so I’ve heard. This was our main problem – that the themes of the novel are so buried in context and under layers that it’s difficult to extract them and easy to lose interest. I have no problem with having to do a little work to get to the jist, but this felt much like needle in a haystack territory.
The story of Daisy Saunders was better, and a nice contrast to the pompousness of the university. She works as a London nurse struggling to make her way in the world and undertaking long shifts of hard graft to do so. Here the theme was more explicit and better explored, showing Daisy’s progression in a profession hitherto exclusive to men. Indeed, most of Daisy’s experiences with men could be described as seedy, not flat-out misogyny but with disdain and never as an equal. Also her efforts to be seen as a free individual at a time when women mostly fulfilled dutiful housewife roles rang true.
The aforementioned ghost story was nothing more than an oddity for us, no-one could really work out its purpose. Perhaps a foreshadowing of Fred and Daisy’s relationship after the cycling accident that throws them together? Who knows, but the supernatural element just felt out of place.
Fitzgerald called the ending the happiest she ever wrote, which struck us as odd as I think most found it ambiguous. It’s a play on the title of the novel, as Daisy helps a man who has collapsed on college grounds and then leaves through the gate, only to run into Fred. The end. I think it’s deliberately left up in the air so we can ponder if a man of facts and science and a ministering ‘Angel’, to use the title, can ever be together. Again, I don’t mind having to make up my own mind, but this deliberate obliqueness became frustrating for me, and I think for all of us.
Goodreads will tell you a different story though, so maybe we are just all philistines who need to read more books!