No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, July 15, 1999

The Vintner's Luck -- Elizabeth Knox

A week after midsummer, when the festival fires were cold, and decent people were in bed an hour after sunset, not lying dry-mouthed in dark rooms at midday, a young man named Sobran Jodeau stole two of the freshly-bottled wines to baptize the first real sorrow of his life."

If I hadn't known better, I'd have suspected Neil Gaiman of writing this novel about wine, love and angels. It's set in Burgundy, France, beginning in 1808: Sobran, sampling the new vintage and bemoaning his luck in love, encounters an angel, Xas, whose wings smell of snow. Xas promises Sobran that he'll return in exactly a year, to toast Sobran's marriage: and so a relationship is born that spans 55 years. Initially the two meet annually on the anniversary of Xas's [not altogether unsymbolic] fall into the Jodeau orchard. Xas is a worldly sort of being for an angel: he's interested in gardening, wine and - above all - humanity. At first he's unwilling to speak of his angelic life: later, as the relationship between the two changes, their conversations move from simple, rustic pleasures to theology, war and the vast distances between heaven and hell.

If the novel focussed only on Xas and Sobran, on the nature of the angel and the man and the parallel sins, or moral crimes, which they commit, it would still fascinate. Sobran's friends, relations and employers - notably the Baroness Aurora, a local landowner and Sobran's confidante - are never merely supporting characters. As well as the tale of Xas's falls - definitely plural, and not for the usual reasons - and Sobran's moral dilemma when he discovers his friend's true nature, the novel includes several murders, several romances, and the tale of a woman's descent into madness.

The Vintner's Luck is a family saga as much as it's a theological fantasy - and, as an historical novel, it's firmly rooted in its setting. Sobran goes to war for Napoleon: Aurora has a breast removed (without anaesthetic - I detected echoes of Lady Mary Wortley Montague's account of a similar operation here); new techniques are used in the vineyard: and, meanwhile, science advances ...

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