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RIVER ANGEL by A. Manette Ansay

RIVER ANGEL

By A. Manette Ansay

Pub Date: April 8th, 1998
ISBN: 0-688-15243-0
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

 Ansay's strangely uninvolving third novel (after Vinegar Hill, 1994, and Sister, 1996) narrates the effects of an ostensibly supernatural occurrence on a small Wisconsin town: a faux-mystical tale that may enthrall the spiritually challenged while leaving more skeptical readers wondering what the hell it's talking about. The story begins when handsome, faithless Shawn Carpenter brings his motherless ten-year-old Gabriel to Shawn's brother's family in their hometown of Ambient (these names are symbols, folks: pay attention), and abandons the boy. It climaxes when Gabriel, an overweight, whiny misfit whose religious zeal alienates peers and adults alike, is pushed off or falls from a bridge after older teenagers torment him. Gabriel's body is later found ``brought'' ashore, in an attitude of peaceful repose consistent with Ambient's local legend that a resident ``river angel'' protects those who fall into its river (neither Ansay nor the Carpenters' neighbors bother to explain why this protective spirit neglects also to save its beneficiaries from drowning). Ansay structures the novel as a series of extended portraits of Ambient's citizens, who variously credit or are affected by this supposed evidence of benign celestial intervention. These include an unhappily married teacher who takes an immediate if inexplicable dislike to Gabriel, two of the teenagers perhaps responsible for his death, and several members of a women's prayer- and support- group that calls itself the Circle of Faith. The best character here, a crippled realtor who matter-of-factly shoulders her several burdens, and scorns the promises of faith healing, is introduced too late to inject any saving irony into the story's redundant grapplings with the possibilities of belief. Page by page, River Angel is deftly written and solidly characterized, but it doesn't add up to much. And, if you don't find yourself persuaded by Ansay's fable, you may detect more than a whiff of both Russell Banks's The Sweet Hereafter and the commercially dynamic contemporary Angelology fad. Ansay can do better than this. (Author tour)