At the Feet of Angels by Vernon Bargainer is perhaps one of the most painfully poignant novels you will ever have the pleasure of reading. The book is told, roughly from the point of view of a three-year old who was taken away against her will from her family and placed in a new one. This new family is every bit as alien to Jenny Burnett, our unfortunate protagonist, and what starts out as an act borne out of love quickly devolves into a heart-wrenchingly horrific tale.
The story starts innocently enough, during a routine trip to the supermarket, but when Jenny decides to go with an uncle for ice cream, the story unravels very quickly, and soon she is placed in the care of the Holdershaws, a couple of childless suburban homeowners eager to start rearing a child of their own.
Sheila, the mother, is a victim of abuse and a recovering alcoholic who is adamant that the fastest way to recovery is to care and love for another person. She persuades her husband to take in Jenny as part of her rehabilitation, and as an effort to prove that she could raise a child better than her own parents.
Bryan, on the other hand, is an engineer who works in aeronautics. He’s the family breadwinner, and is initially standoffish with Jenny at first, but eventually starts forming a bond with the little girl borne out of affection and necessity.
Readers may read the above lines and think that this sounds like the perfect recipe for a heart-warming story where the family grows into love as the tale unfolds, but nothing is farther from the truth. Bargainer’s decision to tell the story from the second person point of view of Jenny is brilliant, as the narration and dialogue forces the reader to experience events from the lens of a small child.
This means that plenty of the themes – Sheila’s alcoholism, the signs pointing to the ultimate fate of her friend Billy, and the gaslighting that happens when things start spiraling out of control in the third act of the novel – were rationalized with Sesame Street logic and a limited vocabulary.
This isn’t to say that the book’s prose isn’t good – you’d be surprised at how brilliant some of the three- year old metaphors can be. However, it blunts the truly horrific signs throughout the story that say, hey, this is not going to have a happy ending. When the characters’ relationships begin to unravel, it won’t come as a surprise, because you know you’ve been expecting it from a few chapters back. But readers won’t be prepared for the impact that comes with At the Feet of Angels’ climax.
Some of the dialogue could use a little bit polishing – the southern twang is present in most of the characters’ lines, but it has the effect of making them sound like each other at times. But this is a very minor critique, and the novel more than makes up for it with its pace. At the Feet of Angels starts with a slow burn but it eventually speeds up into a blazing conflagration that will keep you at the edge of your seat.