‘Web of Angels’ by Lilian Nattel

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Hubert O’Hearn

Can violence be seen as beautiful? It seems unlikely, indeed highly unlikely as violent acts seem as far removed from beautiful creation as any two opposites can. And yet, shards of broken glass may reflect light in ways that sparkle and enchant, while that construction of death – the spider’s web – is art equal to anything imagined by Rodin, Alex Calder, Frank Lloyd Wright or just choose your own favourite.

And so, Lilian Nattel certainly chose the correct metaphor for the title of her new novel, Web of Angels. That little preposition ‘of’’ gives you the whole structure. The metaphoric web constructed is not for the catching and killing of angels; it is composed of and designed by angels. The subject matter of Nattel’s novel is the psychological effects of child sexual abuse and child pornography on its victims.

Now, I am quite sure that upon reading that last sentence you the curious reader have made a preliminary judgment as to whether or not you want to read a book about this… lowest dungeon of human psychosis. Can’t say as I blame you if your initial thinking is in the negative. If eclectic reading was not the fuel of my profession, I’d be right there with you. However, in the last six months I’ve read two incredible novels with child porn right at their hearts: Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin, and now Web of Angels. And as meaty and deserved a reputation as Banks has in the ranks of American letters, I’m not so sure that Nattel hasn’t written the better book. Why’s that, you ask?

Good thing you asked, as I was going to tell you anyway. Banks’ novel – and it is excellent – looks at the issue from the outside with a concentration on the perpetrator post-sentencing. Nattel goes at it from as inside as you can get – literally into the mind of the victim, as well as the smooth gloss that shields the producer.

On to the plot. In Seaton Grove, one of those quiet, leafy Toronto neighbourhoods of renovated houses and polite, community-oriented neighbours, a young pregnant girl named Heather blows her brains out with a rifle lifted from the next door neighbour’s gun cabinet. The baby is saved – cut from the womb by Heather’s mother, who is a doctor. Heather’s fourteen-year-old sister Cathy is of course traumatized by this suicide. At least she has her first boyfriend Josh Lewis and Josh’s family to go to for escape and comfort.

Josh’s mother Sharon has DID (dissociative identity disorder), or what we usually think of as multiple personalities. Sharon keeps this well-hidden from the world. Her husband Dan knows it; her therapist Brigitte of course knows it. However her best friend of twenty years and sister-in-law Eleanor doesn’t know it, nor do Sharon’s children. Sharon bristles when the comparison is made to the high-octane personalities of The Three Faces of Eve, or Sybil. It’s not like that with her, or most people with DID. The various personae come to the surface to fit the situation – whether it is a small child or ‘lil’ like Ally, a swaggering male like Alec, or the athletic adolescent Lyssa. Here’s a passage from the novel, putting Sharon within the context of this neighbourhood, beginning with a discussion of time before clocks and time zones became standardized:

They marked Seaton Grove time by looking up at the sun. Noon was twelve minutes earlier in the next town west, six minutes later in the hamlet to the east. Travellers never quite knew when their trains were arriving or leaving, because time changed every few miles. Some people carried half a dozen watches set to clocks along their journey, to no avail. Time was independent, unruly, untrammelled. Then standard time was invented and clocks became synchronized.

People who were multiple still rode the vagaries of hours that leaped, disappeared, reversed and sped up. But even for them, time moved in the outside world. If Sharon lost it, someone else gained it. Lyssa, who was sixteen in a mom’s middle-aged body, was going on seventeen as she ran beside her sister-in-law, her feet pounding the earth, the stones under her feet older than the clock.

As the above I hope clearly demonstrates, Nattel is an outstanding, controlled writer. Thank God for it, as there was an implicit danger in writing Web of Angels.

You’re likely a bright enough person to have already  figured out for yourself that Sharon was, or rather is, an abuse victim, and somehow abuse and pornography figured into Heather’s suicide. Here’s the thing and when I had the thought it chilled me as I hope it chills you. Nattel postulates in her book that one out of every hundred children has DID – as she puts it, one out every three grade school classrooms has one. Exactly how many of those are the result of abuse (up to 30% of all female children are abused according to a recent US study) would be difficult to precisely determine. We can however agree on a correlation.

What chilled me was the realization that there will be those… and somewhere a reader of this very review, who will want to read Web of Angels for titillation. They will want to find erotic pleasure in descriptions of sexual torture of babies, toddlers and the pre-pubescent. They – you? – won’t find it here. (And I must say this: If part of the they is you, get help. Get help now. You know somewhere in your heart you need it and we are not so cold a society that it is not there for you. Onwards.)

That would have been the most difficult task for Nattel in writing this book – to make clear the truth of systematic, commercialized abuse without accidentally adding to the ranks of child pornography herself. My delighted and equally relieved praise is to say that she was able to do it.

I’ve just been engaging in an internal debate whether or not to quote from the vital scene where the molestation is being recorded. I think the following is shareable. Sharon is already fully within the defensive DID personality:

 So Ally went away inside, as deep as she could go, leaving Lyssa on the bed to scream and try to bite the man again as he turned her over, yanked her head back by the hair. It had to be someone else who cried. Lyssa wanted to kill them.

In one of his last published essays, the late Christopher Hitchens took strong issue with Friedrich Nietzsche’s pronouncement that ‘whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’ Hitchens, dying of esophegeal cancer and undergoing tortuous chemotherapy and radiation treatments wrote that ‘it’s probably a merciful thing that pain can’t be described from memory.’ My apologies to Hitch, but – yes it can.

Knopf Canada | 368 pages |  $22.00 | paper | ISBN #978-0307402097


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Hubert O'Hearn

Hubert O'Hearn is an arts and book reviewer who recently moved to the UK. His book reviews currently appear in nine major North American cities. An archive of his work can be found here.