The Angel Maker (2005): Stefan Brijs

★★★½

The tiny Belgian village of Wolfheim is galvanised when Victor Hoppe, son of the late GP, returns home from his medical studies in Bonn. Why has the prodigal suddenly returned to his father’s old house? Does he mean to take up his father’s mantle as the local doctor? Why is he so standoffish with the locals? And, most curious of all, what is the story behind the three motherless infant children he brings with him, each with an identical severe cleft palate? In this disturbing modern morality tale, Stefan Brijs tells the story of a modern Prometheus: a brilliant man fatally undermined by his own lack of empathy. By chance, I came to this soon after reading John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, which gave it an even stranger flavour: it felt, at times, like a cross between Frankenstein and The Midwich Cuckoos. But Stefan Brijs’s novel is more disturbing than either of these because it is so plausible, and because there is such an ironic contrast between the godlike dreams of its protagonist and the sheltered world in which he tries to bring them about.

Continue reading

The Voyage of the Short Serpent (2004): Bernard du Boucheron

★★½

Literary prizes are strange things. This novel won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 2004, which led me to expect something rather brilliant, but it fell gloomily short of expectations. Austere, cold and brutal, it tells the story of the medieval Catholic priest Insulomontanus, who is dispatched to New Thule (Greenland) to minister to the faithful. The New York Times regarded the book (translated by Hester Velmans) as a tour-de-force of black humour, but I found it an increasing slog of horrific cruelty and almost unbearable suffering. Framed as Insulomontanus’s grovelling report back to his master, it plays deftly with notions of the unreliable narrator – but that in itself isn’t enough to transform this monotonously miserable story into an engaging read.

Continue reading