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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Angel Maker

Stefan Brijs

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To purchase The Angel Maker

Title: The Angel Maker
Author: Stefan Brijs
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 346 pages
Original in: Flemish
Availability: The Angel Maker - US
The Angel Maker - UK
The Angel Maker - Canada
The Angel Maker - India
Le Faiseurs d'anges - France
Der Engelmacher - Deutschland
La fabbrica dei bambini - Italia
El hacedor de ángeles - España
  • Flemish title: De engelenmaker
  • Translated by Hester Velmans

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Our Assessment:

B : Brijs makes it too easy for himself

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 19/8/2008 Paul Binding
The LA Times . 4/2/2009 Tim Rutten
San Francisco Chronicle . 30/12/2008 Terry Hong

  From the Reviews:
  • "The narrative is fast-paced, with a sizeable cast, yet it is Dr Hoppe's own section that moves us most and reveals the author's deepest intentions. Hoppe, we learn, hates God but loves Jesus. Artificial constructs like theology, whose instruments here are a brutal orphanage and a bigoted priest, and science, with its careerists, sharply etched, should be shunned in favour of nature and humdrum humanity." - Paul Binding, The Independent

  • "This book, which flavors the author's previous forays into magic realism with a strong dose of the Gothic, explores a world of science gone amok in a society whose religion -- in this case, the conservative traditional Catholicism of small-town Flanders -- offers no consolation. (...) The Angel Maker is an alternately fascinating and repellent novel. In part, the latter characteristic is a consequence of the fact that the major protagonists ultimately are unsympathetic." - Tim Rutten, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(S)omething gets lost in the translation, perhaps literally: As rendered in English, anyway, The Angel Maker proves to be clunky and heavy, with characters that never seem to expand beyond the flat page. (...) The book should have been better. The gory spectacle of the ending alone should have left me shivering. But Ira Levin's The Boys From Brazil -- even at 30-plus years old -- or Kazuo Ishiguro's more recent When We Were Orphans offer more effective spine-chilling reads." - Terry Hong, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Angel Maker is a novel about playing god.
       The three-part novel begins with the arrival of Dr. Victor Hoppe in the Belgian town of Wolfheim, near a point where the country borders both the Netherlands and Germany. Hoppe arrives with three infants -- and no wife -- and he is very secretive and protective about the children, always keeping them inside.
       They're rather frightful looking: "They looked the way a child might have drawn them: the proportions weren't right." They all have an identical cleft palate -- just like Hoppe. And, indeed, they are absolutely indistinguishable, which is why Hoppe has put a coloured band around each one's wrist, to tell them apart.
       Hoppe is slow in integrating into the community, but he is a doctor and people turn to him for help, and eventually he has to open his doors for regular practice hours, otherwise people will just come at all hours. He hires a woman, Charlotte Maenhout, to look after the boys a few hours a day, though she's not quite sure what she's getting herself into. There's the kids' odd appearance, the doctor's odd behaviour -- he's strangely distant and unemotional --, and those little things like the names he's given them: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. But he's not much of a talker, and even less of an explainer.
       They're smart kids, even at such a young age, picking up things faster than would be expected. But there is also that unsettling physical side to things, like the way all their hair suddenly falls out, or how they lose their teeth so soon .....
       It's soon clear that Hoppe's specialty was ... cloning. But how he wound up working as a GP in Wolfheim (after holding a university research post) and what exactly his experiments involved only slowly becomes clear, especially in the second and third parts of the book, which fill in the blanks about his own background and upbringing.
       "In today's world, Victor Hoppe would probably have been diagnosed as having Asperger's syndrome" -- though given that his Wolfheim years begin in the mid-1980s most of these events aren't that far removed from 'today's world'. But the infant born with the horrific cleft palate a few decades earlier was not happily embraced by his parents; a freak even before his other freakish qualities were recognised (the Asperger's), he was shoved off to a psychiatric institution, run by some batty nuns. Between the devout nuns and the retarded lunatics around him, as well as his own condition, Hoppe was raised in a very peculiar environment. Once his mental abilities were recognised he stood something of a chance -- and did, after all, become a doctor -- but he was certainly also scarred for life. Religion left a strong imprint on him -- witness his god-complex ("I don't have to answer to anyone") as well as what he names the three kids -- and the Asperger's also made many things difficult, especially any social interaction, as:

     Victor had trouble with nuances. Unable to show much emotion, he was likewise unable to distinguish it in others. To him everything was either black or white.
       Victor's trouble with nuances proves rather problematic, since he doesn't know when to check himself -- or rather his scientific experimentation. With a sense of morality that tells him it is okay to play god, that's exactly what he decides to do, and as soon as he has successfully cloned some mice he jumps at the chance to clone some humans. Apparently this is meant to be shocking; certainly Brijs treats it as something that should be left to god, not humans.
       Hoppe's experiments work -- sort of. At one point: "He had no idea where exactly the experiment had gone wrong. Or perhaps he did, but would not acknowledge it." Regardless: he presses on -- always forging ahead, fast and heedlessly.
       The three kids learn a lot from Charlotte Maenhout, but, of course, all ends in tragedy. Hoppe wants his little archangels to only learns bits of religion -- that Jesus-story is okay, but he doesn't want them hearing about god's role (he's not a big fan, and given his own father's treatment of him, it's understandable that he has a beef with fathers who sacrifice their sons). Of course the little kids, smart though they are, muddle things up as well: "I wish we were already dead," one of them sighs when Maenhout tells them about heaven and how children who die: "change into angels, and fly straight up to heaven". With their names they, of course, don't have far to go .....
       Victor Hoppe is, of course, another Dr.Frankenstein, and his experiments go similarly awry -- though Brijs does nicely leave a crack open after the seemingly catastrophic end. The problem with The Angel Maker is that this indictment of playing god also has no nuance: Hoppe's actions are excusable because he is an amoral creature, and he is an amoral creature because of a physical/mental disability -- a profound sort of autism that leaves him only able to differentiate between a certain sort of good and evil (and even then only in crass black or white manner) -- and the mistakes in his upbringing that stunted all emotional growth and moral comprehension.
       Brijs makes it very easy for himself by making his mad scientist literally mad -- not a clinically insane psychopath, but damaged in a way that also makes him profoundly abnormal (i.e. completely outside everyday norms) and that, in a way excuses (or explains) his actions. The suggestion is that any normal person could not act in this way or conceive of such experiments (and certainly the way Hoppe presses ahead at certain points suggest an obsession that is beyond any rational explanation). The religious twist helps compound things -- the Church is still mighty influential and powerful in all these parts, and Brijs' indictment extends to its abuse of power as well (as he even goes so far to have the nuns play god too, though in their case the physical invasion is not meant to create life but to terminate it).
       Brijs does utilise Hoppe's Asperger's well in certain respects, notably in the doctor's inability to properly communicate with any number of people, including the women whom he implants his experiments in. The novel is competently written, and exerts a certain fascination. Maenhout's relationship with the young boys (and Hoppe's with a young novice when he was a toddler), the children's development (and the recognition of their fate), and the gossipy townspeople are all fairly well done. But it is also a story full of ugliness -- from the constant reminders of the physical ugliness of the small children to the morally repugnant actions that cause so much suffering -- and that can be hard to take.
       Brijs' manipulative saddling of a damaged protagonist with a god complex -- and then letting him go all the way with that -- is, ultimately, disappointing. The moral question is evaded here -- or rather: Brijs serves it up so obviously on a platter that it's hardly worth thinking about. Yes, this is a complex ethical issue, but Brijs' isn't much more than a gut-reaction response. There's no nuance here, and though Brijs doesn't seem to believe it, the issue is nowhere near as black and white as he makes it out to be.
       On the subject: Harry Mulisch's The Procedure -- now there we're getting somewhere .....

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The Angel Maker: Reviews: Stefan Brijs: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Flemish author Stefan Brijs was born in 1969.

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© 2008-2012 the complete review

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