The Angel Maker is one of the few (only?) books I have read by a Belgian author, which is probably more to do with a lack of interest on the part of publishers in Flemish/English translations than any lack of talent in the Belgian publishing scene. Certainly, Stefan Brijs has produced a complex and engaging novel, which deservedly won the Golden Owl from the Royal Academy for Dutch Language and Literature in 2006. Hester Velmans has translated the book in a flowing style leaving no sense of “translation” in the finished work.
The book seems to be marketed by its publishers as thriller, but it is far much than that. The story concerns a doctor who returns to the small village of Wolfheim after many years, with three identical children in the back-seat of his car, all with a hare-lip. Dr Victor Hoppe lives a secluded life and keeps his children away from public view. The villagers view him with suspicion but he soon wins their trust by performing some notable cures.
It is almost impossible to review this book without spoiling it for other readers, for the doctor has a complex background as a medical researcher and the children are not what they seem. The author slowly reveals the doctor’s past, from childhood on through medical training and into genetic research. The themes are many, but all wholly topical, from advanced fertility treatment through to the character traits accompanying Aspergers Syndrome.
The reader is drawn through a richly complex story which develops many subjects including religious intolerance, society’s treatment of disability and “difference”, genetic research, autism and its effect on personality. Stefan Brijs reveals an in-depth understanding of his subject matter and a search through Wikipedia shows how well-grounded he is in the background science. Underlying the whole book are questions about medical ethics which are in many cases sill unresolved by most European governments.
As explored in previous articles on this blog, I was able to use Google Earth to enhance my reading by giving me photographs and background information on the region in which the book is set. I tracked the locations in this book on Google Earth and learned much about the area around Vaalserberg and Drielandenpunt, the point at which three borders meet (Netherlands, Germany and Belgium). This point features significantly in the book, and its unique setting has enabled Stefan Brijs to cover the book’s themes from the perspective of different national cultures while giving it a very pan-European flavour.
I would recommend this book firstly to those who have an interest in contemporary European writing and secondly to anyone who would enjoy a challenging but exiting book on a difficult subject, with many twists and turns along the way.
One more thing: I was amused by the Wikipedia entry on the Drielandenpunt which seems to show the Dutch writers of the article making a dig at the Belgians – the “tidy and urbanised development stands in marked contrast to the rough cinder parking area that makes up the Belgium sector”.