Anne Rice’s mesmerizing new novel, Angel Time, is about a young man who witnesses his young siblings’ murders at the hands of his alcoholic mother and her own subsequent suicide, goes to New York City with the intention of becoming an internationally famous lute player but instead gets sidetracked and becomes an accomplished and financially successful assassin. He is ultimately confronted by his guardian angel, who helps him travel back in time to 13th-century England in order to save a village of Jews.
I know what you are thinking right now: “Ah! That old chestnut!”
Despite the far-fetched plot, Angel Time is in fact a good read. The book, however, marks a departure from the author’s previous bloody, sometimes sadistic, frightening and macabre books. As a result of her return to Catholicism, Rice refuses to devote any more time or energy to writing about vampires, witches and demons. The author explains:
The entire body of my earlier work reflects a movement towards Jesus Christ. In 2002, I consecrated my work to Jesus Christ. This did not involve a denunciation of works that reflected the journey. It was rather a statement that from then on I would write directly for Jesus Christ. I would write works about salvation, as opposed to alienation; I would write books about reconciliation in Christ, rather than books about the struggle for answers in a post World War II seemingly atheistic world.
Readers more accustomed to Rice’s gorier, eldritch literature will see that her skillful storytelling and character development are still in evidence. The slow, pedantic and choppy style in the first 12 pages initially made me despair that Rice had lost her touch. But, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the reader is drawn into the characters of her book—especially the lead antihero assassin, Toby “Lucky” O’Dare, aide-de-camp to the rather hands-off angel Malchiah, who needs Toby to interact with humans on a more “human level.”
Though Angel Time’s plot is unbelievable, it is easy for the reader to suspend disbelief. Rice weaves a compelling, suspenseful and even sordid tale.
Considering this is a foray into a new genre and the topic of this particular book, she has a weighty task before her. Readers of Dante’s Divine Comedy might remember that Inferno and Purgatorio are riveting because all of us want to know how the bad guy gets it in the fullness of time. The crimes and the corresponding suffering and pain of the damned souls fascinate us, whereas the beatific existence of souls floating blissfully in Paradiso is a bit less compelling. It is more entertaining to talk of evil things and their effect upon the soul and upon the world in general. Holiness is harder to sell, so Rice has her hands full trying to make holy seem hip.
Certainly all art is autobiographical to some degree, but Angel Time is more personal than Rice’s previous fiction. It seems that intentionally or not, Rice has written a roman à clef. I suggest that the hidden drama in this book is her recent return to Catholicism. Fans will recall that Rice delved into her spiritual awakening in her autobiographical Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession (Knopf, 2008). Angel Time is the first fictionalized account of her coming back to the fold. It is about the titanic struggle between good and evil as played out in the confines of a single human soul and how that struggle affects the world around that soul—specifically, Anne Rice’s soul.
The story’s assassin protagonist is not merely “sad” at his predicament in life. He is a spiritually empty, embittered, self-centered atheist, who sees others as means to his own end. The only thing that seems to fill that emptiness is his dedication to destroying all vestiges of human emotional attachments. By her own admission, this is the state in which Rice found herself before her conversion of heart.
It should be noted that Rice’s convoluted use of relativistic ethics as a plot device is a point of concern. The author spends a quarter of the book detailing a complex plan to deceive a bishop and his ecclesiastical court by passing off a live Christian sister as her dead Jewish twin in order to save a town’s Jewish community. It is the classic moral question everyone considers at one time or another: “Would you lie to Nazis in order to save the Jews hiding in your attic?” Toby, the assassin-turned-time-traveling-superhero, has to make the same decision, but sans the Nazis.
I did not find the time-traveling sequence as hard to believe as the idea that God and Toby’s guardian angel Malchiah wanted the erstwhile assassin to lie under any circumstances, even if that lie resulted in saving many others from death. I find it difficult to accept the idea that God is encouraging an end-justifies-the-means style of ethics. If we found ourselves in such a situation, as certainly many European Christians who saved Jews persecuted by Nazis did, we should lie because it would save lives, not because lying is good in and of itself.
But despite the confused ethical system, and the angelically assisted time-traveling assassin, Anne Rice has written a highly entertaining book that shows the world the very real spiritual results of intentionally separating oneself from God and refusing his grace.