The Angel Makers
by Jessica Gregson
9781569479797, Soho Press, $24.00
Both shocking and encouraging of sympathy, The Angel Makers is a haunting novel that will slyly seduce you.
Taking place in an isolated village in Hungary, the story revolves around Sari Arany, first as a young girl, then as a woman, and her place in village life. Her father is the village medicine man and seer; her only friend is the feared village midwife and herbal woman. Before her father dies, he arranges (with her permission) for Sari's engagement to Ferenc, the son of the wealthiest family in the village. It is a surprise to most, for because her mother died soon after her birth, Sari is thought to be unlucky and treated with scorn and suspicion by the villagers. It doesn't help that Sari is peculiar - beautiful, piercing eyes, more learned than most women, and surprisingly forthright with her speech and actions. Despite this, it is seen to be a good match, and when her father dies sooner than expected, Ferenc assumes they will marry immediately instead of waiting for Sari's 18th birthday. Yet Sari stands firm, and instead chooses to live with Judith, the herbal woman, to learn about being a midwife prior to marriage.
But soon the war comes to Hungary, and the men must go off to fight. Suddenly, the women of the village find themselves living in a strange new world where they don't worry about when food is on the table, where they have time to make new friends, where they begin to feel more free in thought and action - no longer worried about a harsh rebuke from a husband or father. When a POW camp sets up nearby, they also feel free enough to get jobs (and lovers) at the camp. Sari slowly becomes more accepted in the village, making a few particular friends, learning more about herbal medicine and midwifery, occasionally receiving letters from Ferenc about his dreams of home.
Then the war ends. The village men begin to return. The POWs leave. And the women are no longer so free as they once were. Sari's friend, Anna, again begins to creep around the village trying to hide the fresh bruises that are a marker of her husband's homecoming. But change did happen in the women. And they are not as willing to lie down and take the men's actions and decisions as they once were. It is at this point that they begin to rely on Sari and Judith's herbal knowledge for getting rid of those pesky problems - the men who maybe should not have returned home from the war.
The best part? This is based on a true story. As the author writes, "The novel details a peculiar kind of madness that gripped the women in a small, isolated village over a period of around ten years, and writing the novel was my attempt to try and understand what circumstances might have brought it about, as well as what may have been going on in the heads of the women in question." This is a fascinating look at how far some women will go to assert their freedom.