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Review: The Guardian Angel's Journal by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

Angels have apparently replaced vampires as the literary supernatural phenomena du jour and perhaps it's little wonder.

While there was much debate in the past few weeks about whether or not to cite one's religious affiliation in the latest census, many people appear to be looking beyond organised religion, to more bespoke branches of spirituality, and this is reflected in the current crop of books, both in fiction and non-fiction.

Look on the current or recent bestseller lists and you're bound to come across an angel-related tome or two, including Angels in my Hair, by Irish mystic Lorna Byrne. Belfast-born Carolyn Jess-Cooke pays tribute to Byrne's autobiographical account of her dealings with angels in the acknowledgement section of her debut novel, citing it as "inspiring". An accomplished poet, Jess-Cooke was inspired to write The Guardian Angel's Journal after the sudden death of her step-brother in 2009, while he was serving in Afghanistan.

She has certainly come up with an interesting premise in the magic-realism vein.

When Margot Delacroix, a 40-year-old woman with addiction problems, dies, she leaves much unresolved on the mortal coil, including a fraught relationship with a teenage son, who appears to be following down her own troubled path. Margot comes back to earth as Ruth, her own guardian angel, to watch, protect, record and love her charge, her former self. In theory, she can rearrange the pieces of the jigsaw, but everything comes at a price, as there are demons lurking around every corner, waiting to harm her, and there is always the threat of hell to contend with.

Ruth watches as Margot is born to a heroin-addict mother in Troubles-era Belfast and is befallen by series of tragedies which led her to a draconian children's home in the north of England. From there, she goes to New York, and Margot's descent into addiction is a difficult thing to witness for her angelic alter ego.

The narrative is punchy and pacy, and the linear travelling through Margot's life works well in building momentum through the story. Jess-Cooke is certainly a skilful writer and this shines through on every page. With a subject matter such as this, the temptation would be to lay on the descriptions and metaphors, but she manages to keep the prose spare, although punctuated by poetic and lyrical turns of phrase.

But at times the characterisation can fall a little flat. For example, Hilda Marx, the brutish head of the children's home, is painted in broad brush-strokes as a result of a traumatic childhood, and Margot blames herself for all of her son's problems, which at times can seem a little trite. After all, what happened to free will?

The most interesting characters, funnily enough, are the guardian angels. Torn between human and angelic form, they are often anguished as they watch their charges make wrong choices and get embroiled in all manner of mayhem.

In the hands of a less skilful writer, The Guardian Angel's Journal could have been a cliche-riddled cheese-fest. However, Jess-Cooke pulls it off sensitively and has, instead, produced a thought-provoking look at how mistakes repeat themselves across the generations, as well as a mind-bending exploration of fate versus free will.

It is a colourful portrayal of how the afterlife, if there is one, might operate. This is much more than a beach read and it deserves to be read; anyone who has ever lost someone will find comfort within its pages.

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