Sistering, in Publishers Weekly, April 2016
Quist (Love Letters of the Angels of Death) drops readers into the center of an intricate web of bonds among five adult sisters and into the minds of each of them as they narrate in turn. This approach allows readers to hear each sister’s thoughts about the others and the conversations among them. Quist clearly knows family and sibling dynamics, and she expertly shows the ways that the sisters support one another and aggravate one another at the same time. The story lines mostly involve the women’s relationships with one another or with their husbands or boyfriends, but a twist in one sister’s story involving the accidental death of her mother-in-law takes the book in an entirely different and almost absurd direction. Though the crisis strains believability, it serves to bring the sisters together, highlight the strength of their love for one another, and fuel the novel’s dark humor. This is a captivating story bound to resonate with readers who have sisters, and Quist’s sharp observations of human nature and sense for comedy will entertain a broader audience.
An early review for Sistering from Leslie Greentree, 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize finalist for Go-go Dancing for Elvis:
Jennifer Quist has an unerring eye for excavating the absurdities and complexities of family relationships: sisters, spouses and mythical mothers-in-law. “Sistering” is by turns dark, light, and deep-black hilarious as Quist peels away the layers to reveal women who desire more than anything to simultaneously fit in and stand out. The lengths to which they go are wonderfully bizarre and surprisingly recognizable, whether you’ve hidden human remains from three governments yet or not.
From the 2015 AML Awards judges:
Such a powerful debut [Love Letters of the Angels of Death] created high expectations for Quist’s next novel, and Sistering easily meets and exceeds these expectations, firmly establishing Quist as one of the most talented Latter-day Saint novelists writing today.
Kerry Clare at picklemethis.com on Sistering:
Weird and original, a dark comedy indeed—not necessarily miles away from Sela Ward and Sisters either. This one that will appeal in particular to readers who loved Trevor Cole’s Practical Jean, and to anyone who ever had a pack of sisters.
From the Adjudicators of the 2014 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist
Her writing is extraordinarily strong, powerfully handled, and evidence of a rarely encountered original voice.
From December 2013, Publishers Weekly, http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-927535-1-58
When Brigs and Carrie discover Brigs’ mother’s decayed corpse, the couple finds themselves drafted into an unwanted role as the rest of the family relinquishes responsibility. This event proves a harbinger of what is come; again and again the young pair play involuntary psychopomps (guide of souls) for those around them. Old and unborn, none are immune to death’s embrace; even as the couple works to establish their lives together, reminders of life’s inevitable end, the ephemeral nature of all things, surround them. Cheerfully unsentimental, the work manages a surprising joyful tone for a novel obsessed with inexorable death, with the idea that to be born is to take the first step towards the grave. Told in the second person, the work is a song of praise to mono no aware, the pathos of transience. It nevertheless celebrates the sweet moments in life along with the bitter. It reminds readers that life is short but along the way are moments that can make it worthwhile, if one only takes the time to appreciate them. A striking examination of life and death, the work is a promising debut novel.
From Sept 2013 Quill and Quire, http://www.quillandquire.com/reviews/review.cfm?review_id=8147
Jennifer Quist’s debut novel begins with an elderly woman, dead several days, oozing onto the thin carpeting of an Edmonton trailer home. Brigham and his wife, newly pregnant with their fourth child, have come to find out why his mom has been out of touch. “The smell in here – is it dirty laundry, a stagnant toilet that needs flushing, or fifty-five years of bad breath let out in a great and terrible exhale?” The whiff of living decay has become familiar to Brigham, but this time is different.
Brigham’s wryly anecdotal first-person voice introduces his unnamed wife as “you” rather than “she.” This second-person-inside-the-first becomes the overarching leitmotif of the book. While never overtly addressing the reader, this approach suggests we’re being engaged as a kind of substitute spouse, with all the intimacy that implies. Elsewhere, Brigham’s imagination takes on writerly omniscience as he conjures his wife’s childhood and her grandfather’s death: “So you try to imagine what your grandmother’s grief must be like … but it’s hard to see how her mood could be much different from the melancholy, recovering-Calvinist temperament she seems to have even at picnics.”
The author takes refreshing risks with the metaphoric potential of narrative voice: the wifely “you,” sometimes awkwardly sustained, nonetheless seems to be gathering toward some kind of revelation. That climactic moment arrives with mixed success, but conveys a heartfelt authorial grasp of life’s losses. Quist drives home her theme: husband and wife – Brigham and “you” – engage with the macabre, sorrowful aspects of mortality on almost every page. Happily, Brigham’s voice is marked by a gently jaded irony that’s free of pathos. Flashbacks to the couple’s feisty courtship, nuptials, and the raising of three sons bring the fractious pleasures of living back into the mix.
Love Letters of the Angels of Death gains resonance in retrospect. Quist’s subject is the paradoxical connection and division between self and other, and how love narrows the gap while making final separation the painful, inevitable counterpoint.
Reviewed by Jim Bartley
From Edmonton Journal, Sept 5, 2013 http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Hingston+Death+works+illuminate+life+stakes/8874701/story.html
On her website, Lacombe’s Jennifer Quist describes her debut novel as “neither a romance nor a horror story — just flamboyantly titled literary fiction.”
Now, authors are notoriously terrible at describing their own work, but this précis is pretty great. Not to mention necessary: you’d otherwise be forgiven for assuming that a novel as ominous-sounding as Love Letters of the Angels of Death is morbid or gothic, and self-indulgently so.
In reality, it’s a surprising, thoughtful and captivating debut that uses death to illuminate all that’s at stake in life itself.
The novel is narrated by an Alberta husband and father named Brigs to his wife (referred to as “you”). We don’t learn her real name until the final pages, and this constant intimacy pins the reader between spouses for the entirety of the book.
It’s a hard move to pull off, but Quist does so by making the counterintuitive but inspired decision to make theirs a truly happy marriage.
There’s one ongoing tiff about whether Brigs will get cremated, but other than that, they’re an indivisible whole: Brigs blends her feelings, thoughts, and even her family history with his own. And Quist uses that foundation like sonar, bouncing all kinds of episodes about death and near-death experience off of the duo, seeing how bad news only brings them and their young family closer together.
After one such incident, which turns out to be a simple case of miscommunication, Brigs calms his wife down by saying, “Come on. We’re great with death. Death is our thing. Ask anyone in the family.”
There’s something earthy and honest about being so familiar with one’s mortality. And that familiarity at times crosses into dark humour, making the book reminiscent of both the HBO television series Six Feet Under and José Saramago’s novel Death with Interruptions, where a personified death decides to go on strike.
Most chapters of the novel are devoted to a single person or incident in the family’s life, past or present.
As the novel opens, Brigs and his wife stand outside his mother’s locked trailer park, peering in through the window and thinking, grimly, “It was only a matter of time before we found human remains.”
Later scenes involving his wife’s stoic-to-a-fault grandmother, or the couple’s two-year-old on some archaic playground equipment, are near misses with death, but no less eerie.
A particularly memorable sequence involves Brigs calling each of his siblings to let them know their own grandmother has died, in the process revealing each person’s unique mourning protocols. One tries to get out of having to drive to the funeral.
One “responds to just about every kind of stress by getting mad.”
And the third, Brigs’s youngest brother, starts bawling on the spot, even though he’s at work on a construction site.
So much humanity is revealed in these moments. Grief, after all, is a kind of pressure, and we all crack differently. Other times what lingers is more simple.
Take the time Brigs’s wife, as a teenager, wonders why fortune tellers are only able to read the lines in palms, and not faces. “Maybe it’s because we’re born with lines in our palms but the lines in our faces only come with time,” she decides. “Faces must only be good for reading the past.”
The dominant emotion in the book, however, is love. Quist’s narrative technique has the dual effect of creating a husband who is totally, hopelessly devoted to his spouse, and also creating a wife who is remarkably sympathetic and three-dimensional for someone whose voice we never actually hear first-hand.
They speak about their children, too, in a way that feels both all-consuming and utterly realistic. For angels of death, these two sure can write a good love letter.
Reviewed by Michael Hingston, firstname.lastname@example.org
From National Post, Aug 2013 http://arts.nationalpost.com/2013/08/23/open-book-love-letters-of-the-angels-of-death-by-jennifer-quist/
‘The earth is jammed with dead things,” says the narrator of Jennifer Quist’s novel,Love Letters of the Angels of Death. We attest to this every time we clean bugs off our windshield or accept the gift of a dead bird from our cat. But human remains are in a special category, only rendered fit for viewing by the embalmer’s art. We don’t like to encounter them outside the places appointed for them.
This is particularly true when the remains have been dead for some time in the living room of a mobile home. Death is especially rude under these circumstances, spreading its powerful odour into the nylon carpet, the skin and hair of living people who discover the body, the clothes of the deceased, etc. This is exactly how the narrator, Brigham, or “Brigs,” in the company of his wife Caroline, discovers the body of his mother. Upon his shoulders falls the subsequent burden of arranging the funeral. “What is a funeral?” asks his son. “It’s kind of like a wedding reception,” his wife replies. “Only the bride has to be a dead person.”
This sounds flippant, but Brigs and Caroline turn out to be the only ones taking responsibility for this reception, and for future ones. “Death is my province of the family,” Brigs says. In similar fashion, Caroline, pressed into service as eulogist, continues to fill that role in future funerals, to speak for the dead. “It will always be you and me,” Brigs says to Caroline, “banging on the windows, stepping over the bloodstains, mouthing the apologies, paying the cheque, giving the body to be burned.”
It seems a natural function for the pair. “We’re great with death. Death is our thing,” Brigs says. “That’s it exactly,” Caroline responds on a more anxious note. “It’s like death has been specially grooming us for something for years.”
All this may sound morbid, and it is certainly true that Quist’s novel deals with some unpleasant realities. There is the incident of a funeral on a wet, wintry day in which the casket is lowered into a grave site filling up with water. There is the incident in which a doctor explains why he doesn’t like family members present at a test for brain death because such tests are often disturbing. During the tests brain-dead patients sometimes lift their arms and drop them on their laps. It’s called the Lazarus Sign Reflex and it gives the impression of a dead person coming back to life.
For all this dwelling on mortality, Love Letters of the Angels of Death can be quite perky, mostly because of the personality of Caroline. She’s feisty without being obnoxious, stubborn without being politically correct — this in spite of having undergone a feminist education at the university. It is also significant that we see her through the filter of her husband’s commentary: Throughout the novel, her husband addresses Caroline in the second person. (“Before you even know you’re awake, your eyes are already open in the darkness.”) This sometimes causes confusion as to who is really speaking, Brigham or Caroline. The technique works in the main, however, conveying to the reader the very strong impression that these two love each other.
At one point, for example, Caroline speculates as to who might be her rival for the affections of her husband. A former colleague called Deirdre? Deirdre likes Brigham, it is clear. She even waves to Brigham as she’s walking down the aisle with her bridegroom at her own wedding. “Sweet, sweet Deirdre, my favourite rival,” Caroline says. “One weak and meaningless, just another human being — one you can halt in the middle of her own wedding march.” Brigham repeats that Caroline has no rivals for his affections. “I do have a rival,” Caroline insists. “And it will never get fat or old or married.” That rival, of course, is death, though Caroline does not mention its name. “My one true rival,” she says. “It’s coming for you whether I dare to say it or not.”
Caroline can never shake off that sense of menace and tries to fortify herself against its inevitable appearance. She even demands a relic, a bone from her husband’s finger, in the event of death’s visit. This is reminiscent of the Catholic cult of saints and martyrs, a cult Caroline seems ordinarily averse to. In this cult, for example, the body of some deceased saints resists the normal process of bodily decomposition. That “headlong Catholic flair” makes her “kind of nervous,” she says, just as Protestant talk about the Rapture represents a “headlong Evangelical flair” that makes her “kind of nervous.”
On a less exalted note, Caroline is fascinated by a collection of mummies from a “tourist-trap museum” at Niagara Falls. Behind their glass cases, these poor dead creatures seem to be “caught in a bad funeral that threatens to go on until the end of the world.” The height of absurdity, however, is not this museum but the story told to Caroline by her brother Derek. In this allegedly true story, the body of their great-grandfather, buried during the war, is exhumed 10 years after his burial and the corpse is found to be perfectly preserved. Not knowing about the cult of the Incorrupt Saints, Derek jumps to a more thrilling conclusion that the great-grandfather is a member of the Undead. “We’re one-eighth vampire,” he informs his sister.
Caroline scoffs at such attempts to ward off the scary presence of death with Halloween tales, acting out death to keep the real death away. It is also true that she and her husband seem to have little time for traditional symbols of spirituality. “We’d no sooner use a cross to refer to anything heavenly than we’d use a Nazi machine gun shell to commemorate our great-uncles who were killed in the war,” Brigham comments.
The cross is artificial; the finger bone is real. It is used as a relic not because it came from the body of a saint but because it came from what Caroline believes are “perfect archetypal male hands.”
Readers are free to make of this what they will. It seems nonsensical to me but the conjuration of such a grisly article is in keeping with the tenor of the novel, which has no strong narrative drive or central conflict but is powered rather by vivid set pieces — a horrific dental procedure, a frightening injury suffered by their two-year-old son on a merry-go-round. It is rather a series of linked stories with a very strong thematic unity — and very strong unity of tone — than a novel. Quist’s heroine, in particular, has a sardonic edge to her speech, as well as an eye for what makes a culture function. Her metaphors, it is interesting to note, are never from the natural world but from the world of literature and media, with references ranging from the Bible to Joni Mitchell.
Quist’s prose, finally, is painstaking in its effort to capture the tangible and the olfactory as well as the visual, with sometimes disconcerting results. She makes the act of slicing a chicken in a kitchen as clinical as an autopsy. The primary emphasis, however, is on smell, a kind of echo throughout the narrative of the book’s first great display of scent — the rotting human corpse in the mobile home. The smell of the ointment on her grandfather’s bed is a reference to that first display — even the smell of the seniors discount card in her grandmother’s wallet points to it.
Again, if all this sounds gruesome, there is great tenderness between Caroline and her husband to counterbalance it. “You’ve buried your face in the wool of my coat,” Brigs comments in a moment of feeling, and there is much of this in this powerfully emotional novel. “I’m crushing your face into my chest,” he comments at another such moment. It is a good crushing, and in context a small indication that death indeed can lose its sting.
Reviewed by Philip Marchand
From Montreal Review of Books, Summer 2013 http://mtlreviewofbooks.ca/reviews/love-letters-angels-death/
“I think Babies “R” Us is one of the saddest places there is – everyone looking to buy something that will make a very traumatic and life changing experience into something more manageable.” Like her main characters, Jennifer Quist does not hesitate to express firmly held, intelligent opinions. That’s her talking about birth. You should hear what she has to say about death.
Love Letters of the Angels of Death is very aptly titled. Don’t be fooled by the reference to angels; this is no New Age fluffball. The book opens with decomposing human remains, and includes a corpse lowered into a grave filled with water and another buried in concrete. (It’s probably not what you think, but Quist lets you think it just long enough to let the idea take form in your mind.) Not to mention the quirks of the living, like the elderly woman who sleeps on a table saw. But the characters’ experiences with death make them “better able to empathize with each other and live together.” In spite of the abundance of funerals (there are a few weddings too), this book is that rarest of literary portraits: the story of a genuinely happy marriage.
Quist had good models. “I’ve never lived in a household where there was anything but a happy marriage at work. My parents got along so well my dad actually took me aside when I was still single and warned me I should lower my expectations for marriage because most married people didn’t get to live as happily as he and my mother. It might have been good advice, but I ignored it and wound up in a happy marriage of my own.”
Literature offers few images of really good, healthy marriages. Tolstoy’s famous remark about all happy families being the same implies that they’re boring, but Quist’s lovers, Carrie and her husband Brigs, are engaging from beginning to end. They navigate the perilous waters of everyday life with humour, tenacity, and integrity. Clearly, Quist understands how happy marriages work. Not that the book is strictly autobiographical. “I let the book family off easily,” she says. “HA!”
The book is set mostly in Alberta – there is a vivid Fort McMurray – with occasional references to Edmonton landmarks and the “bald prairie” around Calgary. But the book also travels to several Maritime settings. For Quist, Love Letters is not particularly an Alberta story, but is naturally pan-Canadian, since it follows the route taken by many Canadians to travel between regions.
Quist keeps us interested as her loving couple copes with various deaths and smaller disasters thanks to her sensitive observations and deft turns of phrase. A pile of kids’ winter clothes “looks like the boys came home from school and then just exploded inside the front door.” A charred wooden wall “looked like it was cobbled together out of tiny coal tiles.”
The second-person narration, with Brigs telling their story to his wife, is a risky choice, but it almost always works. There are artificial-feeling moments when Brigs recounts events and emotions he could not have been privy to, but that’s part of the point: in this marriage they see and feel the world through each other. Although, at the very end, this is carried to an extreme that is more technically consistent than emotionally effective, it works well enough. It’s one of the details that Quist drew from life. After her husband lost a parent, she managed her and her husband’s grief “by tuning into his feelings and his perspective. It was a survival measure,” she says. In Love Letters, it is at the core of Carrie and Brigs’s practice of loving marriage. This radical empathy is one of the book’s joys.
“During those few days,” Quist explains, “nothing mattered to me but his experience.” Putting her mind to her husband’s experience seems to have fitted Quist beautifully to write from a man’s perspective. She has also benefitted from life with five sons. “I’m outnumbered six to one by men. I’m soaked in the male psyche.”
Brigs and Carrie have four small sons, but there is a strange absence of toddler life. Carrie never seems to have mashed banana on her T-shirt or crusty egg yolk in her hair; there is no sense of the constant parental struggle to get enough sleep or eat a blissfully uninterrupted meal. The kids are constantly being left behind with someone’s aunt while Brigs and Carrie run off to deal with another family crisis. This is not so much a story of parenthood as it is the biography of a marriage, complete with its prehistory in childhoods and family histories. Death reveals family dynamics that other writers might have shown through scenes of domestic life. Quist is interested in death because of how it affects us: “Western death rites have become a product – a prepaid package deal. My personal theory is that it’s because the social responsibility for dispatching the dead became a mostly male responsibility and many of them would rather just write a cheque and sit it out. The death industry is over-processed and just about everything about it seems targeted at making all contact with the dead body extremely controlled, absolutely voluntary, and overseen by specialists from outside the family unit … I don’t think this is good for people.”
The opening scene of Love Letters is a graphic (but not disgusting) description of Carrie and Brigs coping with the deliquescing corpse of his mother. It reads a bit like a murder mystery starring a forensic expert – but Quist’s point is that death is not to be left to experts. “I think it makes them better able to empathize with each other and live together,” she explains. Like birth, death has been too professionalized, too abstracted, leaving us at a loss when faced with these very intimate aspects of life. Searching the shelves of Babies “R” Us, “we’re trying to find a way to write a cheque and then show up as honoured guests at the big event, the way we do with death. But … birth – or at least the postpartum aspects of it – is still something women have to pass through themselves inside their own bodies.”
The love letters that Carrie and Brigs, the angels of death, accumulate for the reader in the gradually revealed story of their marriage are not sentimental in the least. Nor is their happiness due to a trouble-free life. On the contrary, it comes from the closeness they create by seeing each other through the whole shebang. The good times, of which there are plenty. The moments when they struggle to work out how to live right. And the painful times, all the mess and weirdness and occasional shocks of being part of a scattered family with its full complement of foibles and failings. Brigs and Carrie never stop “writing” the love letters that make up both life and death.
“It’s hard but it’s good for us,” says Quist, “and for the people who need to step up and care for us.”
Reviewed by Elise Moser
Toronto Star‘s “Arrivals: Recent Books of Note,” Nov 2013, by Sarah Murdoch
This first novel by a writer from Lacombe, Alta., opens with a couple discovering the mouldering remains of his mother in a trailer park. Before long they realize it will be their lot to help other loved ones into the hereafter — the angels of death of the title. That’s the set up for a most unusual book. Also unusual is that it is written in the second person, a tricky voice to sustain.
Montreal Gazette, “Between the Covers, Between the Cracks: Some Titles Escaped Our Spotlight This Year,” Dec 19 2013, by Ian McGillis
Among the uniformly high standard already established by Linda Leith’s fledgling indie literary publishing house, a standout is Jennifer Quist’s debut novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death (Linda Leith Publishing, 222 pages, $16.95), an extended meditation on matrimony and mortality that flits with remarkable assurance between the naturalistic and the supernatural, the sad and the funny.
Red Deer Advocate, 11 Oct. 2013
Not surprisingly given the title, there is a lot of death in this book.
The story opens with a young couple sent to check on a mother who “hasn’t been seen in days.”
Their worst fears are realized when mom is discovered face down on the floor of her trailer home, having been dead for several days.
The narrator here is the husband of the young couple, and he’s speaking to his wife in a reminiscent style.
The woman found in the trailer is his mom, and this is the small town where he was raised.
At first glance there seems to be little grief at his loss, but mom’s been a bit of an oddball and clearing things away takes precedence.
It’s not until the wife sees the “coral sweater she always wore” that feelings surface.
Such seemingly small reminders mean everyday life has changed forever.
So Brigham and his wife arrange the funeral details, cremation, eulogy, interment of the ashes, all of it; the family comes, it’s over.
Except, of course, for the discussion between husband and wife, the pros and cons of cremation versus burial.
When the wife was 15-years-old, her grandfather died of a stroke. The loss is her first experience with death, and like a kid, she tries to grieve a grandpa she barely knew.
Mostly she remembers the unguent he put on his sore knees smelled like homemade root beer. Still she redeems herself when grandma, while mourning in her own way, needs help.
This novel describes death of relatives left and right, in-laws and grandparents. Sometimes there are tears and grief, sometimes release, sometimes realization that the relationship suffered through neglect and death meant less than it should.
There is always the service and the paperwork and someone has to do it.
The reader may wonder with all this death, what of yourself? Will there be a legacy of caring and sadness? Will anyone really care?
The married life of Brigham and his wife (we eventually learn her name to be Carrie) is the strength of the story. They share a warm, happy marriage, delight in their baby boys, and enjoy repartee both humourous and opinionated.
Their move to Fort McMurray for work features some frontier scenes, frigid winters, trailer living, bush-fever, and “tar sand beetles.”
Reminiscences do not always follow the calendar, so be prepared for a story that covers old ground, as memories surface.
The ending is perhaps predictable, death seems to be all around and ever present. When does it come even closer? This is an unusual and bold writing.
Jennifer Quist has written poetry and short fiction. She has had work published in The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and Today’s Parent. She lives in Red Deer and this is her first novel.
Reviewed by Peggy Freeman
Love Letters of the Angels of Death, is Canadian Jennifer Quist’s debut novel. It catches one off guard from the start, both in its second person style and its direct pedal-to-the-metal opening jolt of imagery. We meet the lead characters, Carrie and Brigs as they discover his dead decomposing mother in a trailer park home. There is no warm up act, the reader is made uncomfortable from the start and forced to begin dealing with death. As readers we are pulled into an extraordinarily personal conversation between the couple in this family crisis. It feels as if one shouldn’t be listening, that one is an interloper eavesdropping on an intimate dialogue between a loving man and his wife.
Carrie and Brigs are a couple that are the “ones”. Every family has them, the people that come through when crisis hits, but particularly when deaths happen, pick up the pieces and smooth the passing. They are the angels in the family, the angels of death. Death and dying are important subjects and often quickly bypassed in literature. Characters die in popular novels all the time, but writers don’t always take us to the reality of what happens next and how families cope with loss. This book is far different and takes us to new places. There is a particularly moving description of Carrie’s grandfather having a heart attack. Quist describes the moments vividly, mixing outer and inner perspective that creates a sense of slow-motion, as the heart attack is taking place. The author revels in details and turns the simple act of a man dying into complex moments that have deep insights.
The book mirrors the Canadian reality of families spread out across the country. Quist takes us from Nova Scotia to Alberta, from Maritime heritage roots to Fort McMurray’s wild-oil-west job adventure. The author links family vignettes along the passage of time that include births, marriages and death, with an over arching link of love between the couple and their family of four boys. The plot line is loose but each milestone event brings home a thoughtful viewpoint.
There is a bedrock Christian theme underpinning the novel that focuses on belief in resurrection and guiding hands. This is however not old fashioned fire and brimstone. Brigs gives us the keys to the modernity of 21st century angels as he quips that “Everyone knows angels lost their wings ages ago – back in the Renaissance” . He and Carrie repeatedly get left with the family responsibilities and we smile as he tells Carrie ” We’re great with death, death is our thing.”
Quist’s first novel is a mystery, not the whodunit style, rather a mystery of the soul, with an undercurrent of Christian beliefs, that supports the story of a couple whose relationship and life together affirm the importance of marriage and family. This could be a gateway book for important discussions on death that some families shy away from. Put it to the top of your bedside on the “next-to-read” pile and share it with your loved ones.
4 stars – literary fiction
Reviewed by Carrie Smith
YMM Magazine, Nov 2013
You’re reading a book. It’s a damn good book. Your wife comes in and says, “I need you to take out the garbage.” You want to tell her that you already did so, but there is no easy way to express the past tense when your author is writing everything in the second person. It’s as if you, the reader have become the character. Then you realize it is not happening in the book; your wife is actually standing next to you.
UNLESS YOUR JOB INVOLVES WRITING ON A DAILY BASIS, most of you are not overly focused on the grammatical person that something is written in. If it is pointed out to you, you will likely nod your head and say, ‘Ah, I see’, without really caring.
The first person, where the author writes as if he is the character in the story, is fairly common in certain types of books; detective thrillers like Parker’s Spenser for example. The first person is autobiographical in nature. It inserts you into the story and the writing can feel personal and intimate.
When you write in the third, universal person, then you as the writer take the omniscient viewpoint. In a way you hover over the top, able to see all viewpoints as the writer shows them to you. Most fiction is written in this way as it allows multiple characters and settings. Gone with the Wind is a classic example as are the Harry Potter books.
Now, the second person is different. It feels reported and immediate, which is why many columnists use it, but it is too detached to be intimate. Everything up till now in this column has been written thus. It is sometimes used as trickery to create a sense of urgency and acute present tense. It is not often done in fiction because it is just so damn hard, although it is used in cookery books and perversely works rather well, (you take two eggs and crack them into a bowl…).
What can seem like flowing and urgent reportage (or recipe) in 600 words can in the wrong hands be dreary over 60,000. Not many writers try to write in the second person, and of those that do, few succeed.
Some of the greats have done it, once: Atwood, Calvino, Faulkner, Hawthorne,Tolstoy. Jay McInerny is the author most often mentioned, for his book Bright Lights Big City. And now we have Jennifer Quist.
Love Letters of the Angels of Death is a strange title, and it is a story about a strange topic. Nearly everything about her opus seems strange. Even her name, Quist, looks like it came from a Star Trek script – the new alien officer, third from the left, wearing the red shirt. The only thing that is not strange at all is the story Quist tells. For truly, this is a beautiful book.
Is there anything more evocative of Fort McMurray than this?
“The neighbour looks over and laughs – making it even harder for me to figure out what he’s saying to us. I’ll get used to the sound of accents like his soon, but for now I’m still ignorant enough for it to take two repetitions – each louder than the last – before I understand that he’s identifying a big black bug sitting on the walkway. He calls it a tarsand beetle and claims it’ll bite us.”
Love Letters of the Angels of Death, Jennifer Quist’s first book, is a charming story, yet if I try to describe it my categorizations may turn you off. It is a love story, and a collection of wonderful vignettes. Yet it is also a complete whole as a tale and a loving homage to our part of Canada. It is so intimate that in the chapter that deals specifically with their move to Fort McMurray, (Nineteen), I find myself reliving my own move here eight years ago, yet seen through a richer light and a keener eye. Intimate, but it deals with broader universal themes as well.
Love Letters also deals with some uncomfortable topics but done in such a real way that I found myself, towards the end, reading as fast as I could to get to what I had suspected was coming, indeed had hoped so: but also dreaded.
Jennifer Quist has been published several times in Northword, Fort McMurray’s own Literary Journal, something she makes much of on her website. I suspect in time to come the shoe will be on the other foot as Northword will be able to make much of them being among the first to spot her talent. She writes in such a way that she takes you to the bottom of the page and forces you to turn, and again, and again, and again.
This is a literary book, but if saying that scares you off as the latest Ondaatje or Morrison might, don’t let it. It is also an excellent holiday read, and a great book to pick up as you are going through the airport. My literary poison of choice generally trends towards Lee Child, Linwood Barclay and Peter Robinson, and I initially said to my editor that I was having a hard time of it. That was my fault. Buy this book if you like good writing, buy it if you like parsed, pithy prose where every word is valued for all it says, and the sum of their parts is exponential. But also buy it if the literary genre scares you, because this book will not. Hell, buy it because it’s a damn good read and it will generously subsume you into its fascinating world, if only you let it.
Reviewed by Kevin Thornton
Segullah Blog, 12 Feb 2014, http://segullah.org/book-review/jennifer-quists-love-letters-of-the-angels-of-death-book-review/
In every romantic relationship there are unspoken understandings and expectations. Who will do the dishes, who will choose Christmas gifts, who will kill the spiders, who will use all the hot water. Whose heart will be the heaviest at the end.
“Even though you’re not quite a full year younger than me, neither of us doubts for an instant that you will outlive me. Maybe it’s based on nothing more intuitive than the fact that I’m the male in this marriage. But somehow, we both know that eventually you will be left alone with the two-hundred-pound unanswered question of my corpse.” (p.11)
Jennifer Quist’s “Love Letters of the Angels of Death” is (contrary to the Gothic-sounding title) a lyrical, rich love story between a husband and wife. The characters are full-blooded, incredibly vibrant and above all firmly, undeniably relatable. Nobody has piercing eyes, or heart-stopping features, this is real life. The wife is pregnant in several of the stories told, they argue, sneak kisses when the kids aren’t watching, they each have their pet peeves and morbid fascinations. What they have is each other, and an obviously deep, committed relationship which is their support and anchor through ordinary, difficult, crushingly difficult experiences.
“He can’t speak but I hear him struggling – all breath and tears – miles and miles away. And somehow, you know it all even though you can’t hear any of it. You’re leaning over me at the kitchen table while I’ve still got the phone held to my ear. Everyone knows angels lost their wings ages ago – back in the Renaissance, I’m pretty sure. We’ve outgrown the need for them ourselves and we’re each left with two arms in their place. You fold yours around my shoulders. They draw me against you. And you’re whispering my little brother’s name like a warm, wet prayer, your face pressed into the side of my neck.” (p. 55)
In our emailed interview , Quist wrote of the closeness of the relationship between the two main characters: “We talk about being “one” with our spouses but I sometimes wonder if many of us believe it’s something that can happen to us as we exist right now. I think it can happen and I was hoping to write about what that kind of unity looks and feels like using these characters. Oneness is among the deepest, most mystical aspects of our beliefs. It’s a miracle we call down on ourselves. And it eludes a mere intellectual explanation. Fiction and storytelling help say what can’t be said. Maybe that’s what ties them together — a miracle.”
Quist has a deft spin of phrase, humour and evocative imagery which lingers and chews on your imagination long after you have turned the page:
“As an adult, my brother looks like me only toasted brown and buffed up for skilled manual labour. But as the child you met that afternoon, he was all knees and elbows and no personal space at all. He darted around you like a Cupid celebrating an emerging Venus – my own mildly heat-exhausted Venus, stepping out of the car and onto the grass.” (p. 54)
Quist crafts, builds, and conveys so much in a fistful of words:
“On the other end of the phone, our Cupid is crashing in a heap of feathers and arrows.” (p. 55)
The story, characters and lushness of prose sucked me deep into “Love Letters of the Angels of Death”, and I read it all in three sittings, begrudging the time spent outside its pages. One question I couldn’t help thinking about while not reading it, was how to describe her novel to someone who would be put off by the title. Quist’s response?
“A team of us agonized over how to write the synopsis on the back cover and I don’t think I could do much better than that. I would like people to understand it’s not a self-indulgent Gothic fantasy but a love story (though not a romance). And it’s not a marriage manual either. There’s no “we interrupt this story to bring you these important messages.””
“Love Letters of the Angels of Death” is an exploration of a couple’s understandings and expectations of each other, shared beautifully – dirt, laughter, quirks, grief and all – through a series of vignettes over the course of many years. We get to learn about the characters as we learn about anyone; in bits and pieces, in jokes and family folklore, in the ordinary and unexpected, in and out of chronological order. Themes dance and rumble through the novel (such as loss, remembrance, dedication and commitment), giving a depth and permanence to the story that is surprising, wonderful and luxurious, and makes the last page difficult to turn.
Quist’s book is a finalist for this round of Whitney Awards, and it is a powerhouse all on its own. For me, “Love Letters of the Angels of Death” is already firmly ensconced as the best book I have read in the last six months, and it will take seismic activity, an alien invasion AND some master-crafted literary marvel to make me even think of beginning to change my mind. Seriously, this is a gorgeous, beautiful piece of lyrical realism.
Read it, and be changed.
- Anyone wanting to read a book
- Anyone looking for strong, beautiful, realistic depictions of marriage, men and women
- Enjoyers of gorgeous prose and imagery
Not recommended for:
- Anyone uncomfortable with the inevitable death of family members
- Those who like their love stories to involve phrases like “His/her eyes were stunning pools of sapphire/molten chocolate/moon dust…”
Reviewed by Kellie
A Motley Vision, 19 March 2014, http://www.motleyvision.org/2014/love-letters-of-the-angels-of-death/
I was on Amazon reading about this book, no idea it was by a Mormon author, and darn near bought it. Then I remembered there’s a moratorium on Theric buying new books and since I wasn’t up to the free-shipping level I closed the tab before I could get into trouble. Then, later that day, I bounced into an email lounging in my inbox offering a free digital copy to AMV for review. And, now, here we are.
In this review, I’ll be worrying less about a holistic look at the novel (though if that happens , great; if not, just know it’s terrific) and more about looking at the striking artistic choices Quist has made. Or, in other words, we’ll be discussing passages I highlighted during my reading.
But enough about me.
The novel is told in first-personish. Which is to say, the narrator isn’t the main main character. That would be his wife. But this isn’t, say, Gatsby or Wuthering Heights where the minor character’s narration becomes essentially third-person. This book is addressed to this narrator’s wife, making the point of view essentially second-person. Which, if you are cleverer than me, you will see addressed right in the title. Of course he’s writing to someone. These are letters we are reading, whether they have a formal salutation or not.
The man and his wife are established right away as angels of death in chapter one as they find the rotting remains of his mother on the floor of her mobile home. They find the body and are subsequently put in charge of everything related to a person having become a body. Which role they then accept for their families generally. The first paragraph:
It was only a matter of time before we found human remains. Maybe that’s true for everyone. This is how it happened for us. (8—numbers refer to Nook locations in the ARC)
Now, this isn’t their first time to view remains, but it is the first time being the ones to findsomeone’s remains—the remains of someone beloved—and in that moment they enter into an intimate relationship with death.
Of course, we are all in an intimate relationship with death, not matter how we may ignore it. As I tell my students, no matter the book we read, evvvvverything is about death. Life, to be brief, is about death. Or, if you find it more pleasant, death is about life.
Now, although the couple is never explicitly labeled LDS, any LDS reader will recognize the signs. The first undeniable tell I marked was “one of [their] favorite eschatological maxims about how it takes a spirit and a body to make a soul” (22). The novel ultimately becomes a powerful argument in favor of the artistic value of Latter-day Saint experience while suggesting (though not arguing) that the six-letter M word is not worth the risk of audience alienation. Which I say simply because it never drops the M-bomb.
This particularly Mormon definition of the soul proves useful thematically as the characters encounter death directly, sideways, in near-misses. Consider the (at the time still teenaged) wife’s view of her braindead grandfather:
. . . a machine breathes into your grandfather’s body as he, or something like him, lies tucked beneath a stiff yellow sheet. (29)
Which leads to the story of the vacuum salesman her grandparents once listened to—”the first person you [remember: “you” is the wife of our couple] ever heard claim that most household dust is actually dead skin” (31), who used his marvelous machine to suck up her grandparents’ dust, making a small pile of themselves.
. . . maybe if they’d let him clean the whole house . . . the coffee table would have been covered in a heap of dead skin as big as both your grandparents put together . . . finer than dry, prairie snow—deep, and inextricably blended, a million individual flakes combined so well it doesn’t matter anymore if they aren’t all exactly alike. (32)
Quist has a knack for these large-yet-small metaphysical conceits, and I admire that so much. Sometimes I see a skill in a writer than I cannot hope to emulate (at least without turning satirical) and so instead of trying to learn from a paragraph like this one, I instead just revel in its absurd, perfect beauty.
Back to the narrator. The frequency of “you” (and the solidity of the husband’s solitary voice) occasionally made me feel slightly uncomfortable, as if I were sitting on the bus in front of a couple made of one silent partner and one champion mansplainer. And here, although I force my own students to play the New Criticism game, I took some comfort in the sex of the author. This is a woman writing as a man writing to a woman, which creates a layer to the fictional couple’s relationship that allows me to listen to the man’s words without feeling oppressive. At times, I was mystified by the things he knew about her—and the detail! Sure, they share a true-love intimacy Princess Bride can only hint at, but he knows things no one can know. At one point, he tells a story in which he up-front admits “we never speak of [one] afternoon” (161) that only she experienced, yet he recounts to her. It would be no spoiler to explain how this is possible assuming you are a cleverer reader than myself (suffice it to say, I had my assumptions backwards—like a dolt), but at other times he tells her of things only he has ever known—and only he may ever know. For instance, “that sound you only make when you’re asleep . . . the worst thing I’ve ever heard” (38)—which, naturally, is born of dreams triggered by daytime views of the unnaturally preserved dead.
Back to this issue I’ve stupidly brought up—(A Woman Wrote This Book)—let me point out now that she writes men extremely well. I certainly see myself in the “part of my unconscious mind that hears the little cries in the night and sleeps on and on—fat, loathsome, and fatherly in a way that’s more reptile than it is human” (39).
* * * * *
“That’s it exactly,” you say, quietly. “It’s like death has been specially grooming us for something for years.” (54)
At this point, I’m near 1000 words—looong for a blogpost. I haven’t talked about the descriptions of aging (eg, “You still hadn’t quite become yourself yet”  of a teenager), the varied use of allusion (from Gregor Samsa to Aslan), the depictions of other loves from other times, the influence of family history and geography upon presently lived lives, the equation that turns births into deaths and nurturers into sacrifices, Quist’s many other exquisite conceits that Donne would have admired—in fact, I’ve not hit a quarter of my notes and my notes are probably not a quarter of what I could have marked for discussion. And, for aMotley Vision post, I sure didn’t engage in much discussion on the novel’s examination of Mormon culture—cultural-hall wedding receptions, missions abroad, cremation uncertainty. . . . Sorry about that.
Love Letters of the Angels of Death is my new go-to novel on issues of matrimony and mortality, and the volume I’m most likely to shove into the hands of anyone who does not think those inseparable.
As it is, I’ve ordered a hard copy to give to my wife as a symbol of what I hope we are and I hope we will be.
Reviewed by Theric Jepson
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