Review: A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven

I’ve been enrolled in the Amazon Vine programme which enables me to select books and other items which have been donated by publishers as review copies.

The first book arrived this week and made me realise that perhaps part of the purpose of Vine from the publishers perspective is to try to beef up the sales of something obscure, peculiar, or down-right unmarketable.   Forgive me Portobello Books if I’ve misinterpreted your motives!

I wouldn’t normally waste time reviewing a book like this but I am posting it here just in case some innocent Googler is tempted to waste a day or two flicking through this book before discarding it (ouch!).

I didn’t know what to make of this Norwegian book, A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven.  Its describe on the inside cover as a novel, but huge chunks of it are a theological history of angels, quoting extensively (and I really mean extensively) from the Bible and the early Father’s of the Church, Jerome, Gregory, Aquinas etc.  Much of the first part of the book is taken up with discussing whether angels existed before the creation of the earth or whether they were part of the creation, which all seemed a bit arcane to me – particularly as this reader at least, don’t really believe in angels anyway.

The fiction comes in at the start when Antonous Bellori, an 11 year old boy has a frightening encounter with two angels and then spends the rest of his life studying written accounts of angels in order to write the definitive angelic history, “On The Nature of Angels”.

However, we soon lose Antonus Bellori and move onto a reworking of the Bible stories that feature angels.  Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel,  Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah and the flood all get this treatment.  These are hugely lengthy fictional re-workings of the stories and one is left wondering what the point of them is.  This sort of thing has been done many times before and its hard to see what Knausgaard brings to them other than a strengthened focus on the role of angels. The problem with turning Bible stories into fiction is that the sparse and enigmatic wording of the originals is usually so much better than over-blown speculations on what really happened behind the source material.  Apart from anything else, Knaussaard’s efforts in this area are not terribly interesting and make no attempt to come up with anything really new.

I couldn’t help but compare Knausgaard’s work with Sally Vickers Miss Garnett’s Angel and other books.  Vickers interleaves Biblical material with modern-day characters in a far more skilful way, finding a contemporary relevance which Knausgaard rather misses.

Throughout the book, the writer follows the status of angele during the last 2000 years and he almost seems to think that the great artists who depicted them actually saw them.  The suggests that by following the course of angels through art galleries we can actually trace their changing form (with the rather degenerate cherubs at the end of this long history!).

But I have to keep reminding myself that this is a work of fiction.  Is it a serious study of angels that weaves through this mixture of Bible stories and ancient history?  Or is Knausgaard trying to make some statement which I have failed to see?  The book finishes with a first person account (the author?) of a childhood in Norway with a deranged father and his sons.  The last scene sees the author as an adult  in a small house on a remote island indulging in a spot of self-harm (cutting his chest and face with a piece of glass) and then lying in a bath reflecting on life.  I have no idea why the book ends in this way – it seems to bear no relation to anything that has gone before.

In conclusion, I completely fail to see what the point of this book is.  It is apparently fiction but contains vast amounts of dated and largely irrelevant theological speculations.  The main character, Antinous Bellori scarcely features after the first chapter, and yet the final contemporary story at the end of the book seems to have nothing to do with the preceding material and the theme of angels seems to have been abandoned.  The self-harm at the end has no connection with any part of the novel and I am left thinking that this is one of the most pointless books I have even read.

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