Written by: Josh Black
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into A Matrix of Angels. It was nominated for a Stoker, but I’d heard it was more literary or contemporary fiction than a genre novel. It does so many different things (and does them so well), that it can’t easily be pigeonholed. It’s an earnest and unsentimental coming of age story. It’s a dark crime story with an undercurrent of horror. It’s also a brilliantly realized meditation on memory in the aftermath of emotional trauma. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest.
The story centers around Frances Pastan, a woman who’s successful in her career and decidedly unsuccessful in the rest of her life. She’s an author and illustrator of children’s books, estranged from her daughter and drowning her sorrows in alcohol. On tour for one of her books, she decides to visit Quiet, California, the town she lived in for a short time three decades earlier. She quickly finds herself seeking information on the man who, all those years ago, murdered her best friend Lucy.
France’s past and present are told in alternating chapters, a technique that I really enjoy when it’s executed well, and Conlon does it masterfully here. With the chapters set in the past, he captures childhood perfectly, in all its highs and lows. The developing relationship between Frances and Lucy will ring true with anyone who’s ever been an outsider and had a close friend to weather with them the pains of growing up. There’s a nostalgic quality to the story that comes about naturally, never forced. It’s colored too by the fact that, before even starting the book, the reader knows Lucy’s inevitable fate. This is where much of the tension comes from, and it also infuses the novel with a deep strain of melancholy.
The chapters set in the present reveal the woman Frances has become, haunted as she is by the ghosts of memory and repression. She understandably has some deeply rooted issues, and in returning to Quiet she’s seeking closure for at least some of them. Gradually, as the two storylines weave through each other and come full circle, we come to understand the physical and emotional paths she’s taken in life. In a sense the novel is a character study more than anything. Its horror is drawn from those sometimes terrible things in life you can’t control, and those wonderful things that, as hard as you might try, you can’t bottle up and keep forever.
When it comes to describing the killer’s actions, the writing is descriptive but not gratuitous. In these scenes, and in the novel as a whole, Conlon has a firm grasp on which details are most important to the story. As well as being an author, Conlon is a poet, and the skills used in poetry translate well into his prose. It’s lean, precise, and beautifully evocative.
I’d never read anything by Conlon before this, but based on this novel alone I’ll most definitely be seeking out all of his other works. If this is your kind of thing, it’s one of those books that will make you smile, make you think, and break you down in the best possible way.