tampabay.com

A marriage is haunted by the truth

A grim reality is revealed bit by bit through each character.

By KIT REED
Published May 6, 2007


Angelica

By Arthur Phillips

Random House, 331 pages, $24.95

Marriages are tricky, especially when it's a case of he says, she says. When a ghost threatens such a marriage, the picture becomes even murkier.

Bestselling novelist Arthur Phillips (Prague) presents a classic case in point. Angelica takes place in a spooky row house in 19th century London. Before Phillips is done, we have heard from all the principals in this novel, in which a woman sees an apparition menacing her little girl with intent to ravish. A narrator introduces the child, her mother and a father who goes to the lab daily to experiment on living animals.

A shopgirl who married up, Constance Barrett has suffered several miscarriages. She is grateful to Joseph for providing a good life and intended to give him children, but has only carried one to term. Her doctor says another pregnancy will kill her.

Sex is easy enough to avoid, as 4-year-old Angelica sleeps at the end of the marriage bed. She is either an angel child or a hysterical tyrant, depending on whom you believe.

Joseph orders the child to her bedroom. Angelica's first night alone brings Constance downstairs in a panic. Is she clinging to the child to avoid Joseph or is Angelica really in danger? Was there an apparition forming over the girl's bed?

Enter the ghost-catcher, Anne Montague, and again it isn't a matter of what the characters are doing, it's what they think they're doing. Anne is smart, earthy and pragmatic. Her advice is well worth the money Constance pays her.

Oh, this is clever, wicked fun and the best thing about this look into the dark side of feminine psychology is that it's the work of a male author. Phillips' last point-of-view character, the grown Angelica, certainly isn't going to tip her hand. She tells her shrink, "Confess: you want no more of me either. Your promises unfulfillable, my fascination fading, you ache to summon from your waiting room - with your seductive scientific mien - the next pretty hysteric."

Kit Reed's novels include "The Baby Merchant, " "Thinner Than Thou" and "J. Eden."