Review: Because the Angels by Kathleen Kern
Spike Darbyfield is a hard nut to crack. Though unafraid to speak her (opinionated) mind, Spike remains detached from those around her. She’d rather invest her emotions in watching Blood+ or working on a novel inspired by Samurai Champloo than in people. There is one person in her life, though, that Spike is crazy about – her sister, Margie, who is part of a Christian peacekeeping mission in Iraq.
However, Spike’s sheltered world is altered forever when she receives an emergency phone call. Margie has been kidnapped by a group of militant Iraqis.
Thus begins Kathleen Kern’s unique story combining anime with spiritual, political, and social elements, and inspired by Kern’s experiences with Christian Peacemaker Teams, which faced a similar crisis in 2005-06. I’d first heard of this novel while reading an article Kern had written, which told of an underlying theme in this movie: the sacred meeting the profane. Spike is the epitome of this theme. While her sister is part of a Christian organization and her birth father a pastor, Spike doesn’t believe in God and uses foul language effortlessly. It’s difficult to warm up to her at first. But as the novel progresses and she opens up, even if its bit by bit, we, too, as readers begin to understand Spike and hope for her as she deals with the pain of not knowing whether her sister will live or die, while having to develop relationships with others, something she has also avoided (unless those relationships are with 2D characters).
One such relationship is with her estranged father, Otto, who is a secondary protagonist in Because the Angels. He is first presented as an abusive father and husband. His character is further degraded by depictions of his conservative Christian faith and lifestyle; he becomes a representation of the Christian right in America. But as Kern masterfully unfolds Otto’s story, I found myself not only sympathizing with him, but also eagerly anticipating the passages that focused on him and the challenges to and responses regarding his faith.
While the book deals directly with Otto’s Christian beliefs, religion mostly plays a background role in the novel. However, depictions of Christianity in the book stand out because they are unexpected and often unflattering, particularly because the view of the faith in this country is so strongly tied to political conservatism. Margie, the kidnapped peacekeeper, uses foul language and is sexually active; Catholicism is strongly defended; and the strongest antagonists in the story are directors of Spike’s faith-related facility and a conservative radio show host. As such, Kern emphasizes (or introduces) to us that Christians don’t always fit the cookie-cutter mold and that many, indeed, are actively (and without hypocrisy) trying to help the helpless. And in the mold of a tale like the biblical story of Esther, the hand of an invisible God is all over events of the novel, further creating a compelling piece without alienating readers.
While I found the religious aspect of the novel fascinating, more unique and just as interesting is how Kern utilizes anime in her story. Spike is often thinking of or watching Blood+. Even more considerable is the Samurai Champloo novel which Spike and another character are writing, much of which is summarized or written out. The inclusion of this material adds a slightly surreal and dark tone to the book, leading to a haunting feeling that permeates it. But the mentions are also sometimes distracting. Because of the Angels is a very quick read; it is addicting and at times, a little intense, so when Spike describes specific scenes in Blood+, the narrative gets bogged down a bit, though this may be particularly for those like me who haven’t seen that anime series.
Some of the characterization could also have used improvement. It was difficult to get a handle on Margie, who is almost entirely explained via memories and flashbacks. I understood what she stood for, but I never felt I knew her character – an important point since the events in the book hinge on her kidnapping.
But these flaws don’t change this fact: Because the Angels is a triumph. Kathleen Kern traverses themes and ideas that are startling in their contrast and masterfully weaves them together to create a novel that’s unique in its scope, while remaining a brisk and exciting read. This is a book that I will long treasure.
Note: For readers concerned with such issues, Because the Angels contains moderate use of foul language. It also features some sexual content.
Readers of Beneath the Tangles can purchase Because the Angels at a 30% discount by using the promotional code “LP8SGJWA” at www.becausetheangels.com.