The Angels of L19 by Jonathan Walker review – an ambitious, flawed experiment

Robert Fisher is a troubled young man. His mother died when he was 12, and with his merchant seaman father succumbing to alcoholism, Robert spends time in local authority care before coming to stay with his Auntie Rose and Uncle Edward. Next door live Robert’s classmate and cousin, Tracey, and her father, Bill. Tracey also has lost her mother, though the circumstances are more clearly documented. Tracey feels drawn to Robert because of their shared sense of loss, protective of him because of his strangeness, an enigmatic, interior quality that seems to set him apart from the other kids on the estate.

Both families are Brethren, evangelical Christians who worship at Garston chapel. Turning away from traditional church hierarchies, they believe in the primacy of the Bible as the word of God. When Robert begins to hear voices, he intuits them as a manifestation of the divine presence. Mark Thorn, a church elder and Falklands veteran, is less certain. After questioning Robert about his experiences, Mark becomes convinced that Robert has opened the door to something more sinister. As the summer wears on, and his visions become more insistent, Mark is moved to action. The events that follow will scar the lives of the whole community.

The bulk of the novel takes place in 1984, a year whose literary significance is briefly alluded to, though Walker’s cultural and political references throughout are more in keeping with the time in which the book is set: Derek Hatton and Margaret Thatcher, the Smiths and New Order. He takes a particular delight in summoning the brand names of the era’s confectionary – Fondant Fancies, Angel Delight, Cadbury’s Fudge – and there are any number of subtler shadings that anyone who grew up in the 1970s and 80s in a low-income household will recognise instantly. Here are homes without central heating, once-a-week bath nights, the TV turned off at the wall to save electricity.

The author has characterised his narrative as “Donnie Darko, but all the characters are evangelical Christians”, and The Angels of L19 styles itself as a coming-of-age novel in which politics and popular culture rub shoulders with a grander, more universal inquiry into repressed trauma and the nature of religious belief. Where many fictional accounts of the 80s have tended to skew towards hectic excess, Walker has chosen to show us a different kind of post-punk reality, that of a working-class Christian community in which material deprivation is not so much a matter for protest as a test of spiritual strength, and the tragedy of an ordinary family is drawn into parallel with a grander narrative.

The book is beautifully written, making use of a low-key colloquial language that is always apposite and never intrusive or forced. The feel of the 80s – the sense of that decade as the beginning of the long, uncertain slide to where we are now, the clinging on to things that are in the process of becoming history, the disorganised objections that were the traumatised response to the wholesale erasure of the post-war social contract – is effectively rendered. But although I find myself in sympathy with what the writer is attempting, I am uncertain as to how well it works, not least in the treatment of the subject matter that is clearly of greatest importance to Walker himself.

The subject of Christian faith seems to be enjoying something of a literary renaissance. Recent novels such as Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, Ben Hopkins’s Cathedral, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Neil Griffiths’s As a God Might Be stand as modern counterpoints to 20th-century classics such as William Golding’s The Spire and Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels, novels that examine the nature and power of belief and more specifically the relevance and persistence of religion in a secular age.

Such narratives thrive on conflict, creating drama and energy from the tension that inevitably arises in the battle lines between the community and the individual, tradition and progress, faith and reason. The Angels of L19, by contrast, feels curiously free of such conflict, as if a vital piece of narrative thread is missing. There are some extremely niche arguments over which edition of the Bible is the truest representation of its message, and postgraduate student Jenny Spinks, who interests herself in questions of judgment and authority, disagrees with Mark over his more instinctive approach to the word of God. But the fact of religion – its centrality to every aspect of the characters’ lives – is never questioned. The most we see in the way of rebellion from these teenagers is some mild sarcasm. Even the school bully is persuaded to attend a church rally because it offers him the chance to walk on the pitch at Anfield. No one is kicking against the pricks, and the structural oppression perpetrated for centuries by organised religion is barely touched upon.

Any in-depth discussion of personal problems is repeatedly swerved, and the novel’s set pieces feel anaemic as a result. The church rally, featuring Billy Graham stand-in Henry Price, attracts none of the controversy and heated argument that occurred in reality, and when Mark decides to conduct an exorcism on Robert, what should be a tense, discomfiting scene is disappointingly tame. Robert’s demon – a scruffy little girl named Azazel – turns out to be a convenient plot device, helpfully providing those details of Robert’s background the adult humans seem determined never to talk about.

In Christian theology, Azazel is the fallen angel who receives the scapegoat in the wilderness. As with the story of Abraham and Isaac that threads through the narrative, the symbolism is clear and intricately woven. But I cannot help asking myself how far most readers will find themselves engaged by what amounts to an extended sermon in which the emphasis is on rhetoric, not feeling; on matters of orthodoxy, rather than the mysterious, ecstatic nature of belief itself.

The most compelling narrative threads – Tracey’s passion for music, the reasons behind Robert’s mother’s suicide – are left largely unexplored. The real-life impact of Thatcher’s policies is disappointingly underutilised, with the cultural markers of the time ultimately more stage dressing than catalyst.

What I looked for and struggled to find in The Angels of L19 was a vision of faith that reaches beyond doctrine and the kind of subjective moralising that is really just another form of small-town prurience, obsessed with policing behaviours that don’t need policing. It is in the novel’s final chapter that Walker comes closest to achieving a kind of transcendence. Old before his time, the frightful summer of his deliverance a distant memory, the adult Robert is an addict and a ruin, so uncertain of his own identity it seems impossible that he can survive another year. And yet redemption is possible, if he can only reach for it, together with a new kind of clarity that comes from being properly seen and understood.

The Angels of L19 is a flawed experiment, but its ambition is admirable. The author’s intellectual and emotional investment in his subject matter is never in doubt, and I know I will be mulling over this story, with all its perplexing awkwardness, long after smoother, more conventional dramas have faded from my memory.

The Angels of L19 is published by Weatherglass (£10.99).

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