Review: The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson

22nd January 2013

Via Goodreads

*I received this book from the publisher Soho Press in exchange for an honest review.

When her father dies, Sari Arany stays motionless, “soaking in the impossibility that she could still be living while her father was dead” and stays there until she feels his presence gone. As she says, “It was all right for her to leave him then.” An outcast in her rural Hungarian village, Sari is the daughter of a táltos, a Wise Man, and with her odd personality and direct stare, is feared as a witch.

Before his death, though, Sari’s father extracted a promise from Sari’s cousin Ferenc, that he will marry her when she is of age. Until then, she lives with Judit, the midwife, furthering the village’s suspicions. When World War I breaks out, the men leave, and the women are left to fend for themselves, and life for Suri changes. Though still different, she has friends for the first time when the hardships of war bring the women in the community together. They receive little news from the men, and for some, life is better without their drunken, abusive husbands.

When a prisoner of war camp full of Italian men moves into Ferenc’s family home, the women, excited and nervous, line up for work and to catch a glimpse of men after such a long time without a male presence. As the rules become more lax, the women enjoy the men, many even having affairs and falling in love.

Once the war is over, this idyllic (though hedonistic) scene is shattered. Ferenc returns sullen and abusive, as do many of the war-shocked men. Fearful and angry, Sari plans to take the life of Ferenc, only realizing her mistake when other women line up at the door, begging Sari and Judit to help them with their own husbands.

Based on a true story, The Angel Makers is the almost unbelievable story of the women of Nagyrév, who poisoned over 40 people between 1914 and 1929 (though the rumored number is much higher: 300). Gregson sets the crimes up well, giving the women a taste of freedom and love so irresistible that they cannot return to the ways of life before the war. The abuse is shocking and intense so that the reader completely understands when Sari administers the first dose of poison to Ferenc. However, as woman after woman asks, begs, or bargains for help, the reader questions not only their choices but Sari’s as well.

Though I wished for an end as lyrical as the rest of The Angel Makers and a bit more depth in the female cast of characters, Gregson’s debut novel is an artful, compassionate, and darkly humorous look at the angel makers of Nagyrév.

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  • Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. I would never have thought of mass murder on such a large scale. I’m sure this one was a very interesting read.

    • You said it. Isn’t that the craziest? No way could it happen now, I tend to think. But this rural place? I don’t know. It’s just such an odd story.

  • Tanya Patrice

    I read this too and really liked it. I had the same thoughts as you about the ending though – it seemed a bit too contrived and convenient.

    Tanya Patrice

    • Yes! I wanted a bit more there at the end. I felt that the time between when the women wanted to off everyone and the investigation was just way too short. I wanted to know a bit more how such a macabre task comes to be.

  • Charlie

    It sounds fascinating, if not fantastic (I’m not sure you could call such a story fantastic). And that it’s true is all the more so, and quite understandable given the times. Interesting you speak of wanting more depth, because on the surface it’s easy to think that the characters would have a lot in this sort of story.

    • It is easy to think/expect that, but the story focused almost completely on Sari, which is good, but sort of left the other female characters feeling a bit shallow. I mean, that’s a lot of killing without a bit more reason than “I’m bored. Next!”

      But all in all, it was a story I had never before heard of, and I really thought it was a pretty interesting story.

  • Interesting that it’s based on a true story but I’m not sure it’s for me. Sounds like a lot going on.