Tree of Angels, by Penny Sumner

They were all watching, everyone in the room. Young women who’d been friends…slid their eyes over Nina now. She was pitied and despised. She’d seen a man naked; had held his shaved skull in her hands. And worse, she could have shouted, she’d done worse than that – promised him life where there was none. Her eyes pricked, though whether with pity for the violinmaker, or herself, she couldn’t have said.

Nina has grown up on a beautiful estate in Russia, with an older sister she adores, a beautiful mother and a slighlty eccentric father. But the peace is shattered when her mother dies in childbirth and her father begins to lose his mind. At just fourteen, Nina realises she must leave home and enters into a marriage to a complete stranger – an Englishman with a need for a wife to conceal a dark secret.

In England Nina makes a life with her husband, Richard, and learns to be happy. When he is murdered, a result of that dark secret, she is left carrying the child of her lover – an Australian serviceman, Harry. It is when Harry also dies that she sinks to dark depths. Her post-natal madness sees her baby taken away from her.

It is not until Nina’s grandaughter, Julia, travels to England and visits the town where the grandmother she believes to be dead once lived, that what remains of the family is reunited.

Tree of Angels is a story of exile, of family and of tragedy. Over three generations Nina’s family must fight against the odds to retain ther dignity and their sanity.

This is a stunning debut novel. Sumner creates deeply textured and believable characters and the reader is drawn into their lives and their struggles, hoping desperately that things will work out. The recurrent images of angels throughout the book is a lovely piece of symbolism. An angel appears in the book’s prologue in a piece of foreshadowing which leaves us wondering, over the bulk of the book, which character is aboard the ship the angel hovers over. The answer, when it comes, is unexpected. Yet it is this unexpectedness that makes the book a success: it is not predictable but it is, ultimately, a satisfying story.

Penny Sumner was born in Australia and now lives in England. She came upon the idea of the story from a Russian exile she met in London. Whilst the story is fictional, it rings true because of its accuracy regarding the time period in which it is set.

Tree of Angels is a gripping read from an outstanding author.

Tree of Angels, by Penny Sumner
Orion, 2004