Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Dual timelines in a story can be challenging. The author has to make both stories interesting. What’s more, the timelines have to fit together, so that there’s continuity in the story. But there are ways to use a dual timeline to tell a larger story. Let’s take a look at such a novel today, and turn the spotlight on Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels.
One of the timelines begins in late 1962 in a small, isolated Welsh village. That timeline is the story of four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. In many ways, they haven’t got much in common (more about their backgrounds shortly). But it’s a small town, so these children tend to spend a lot of time together. They know a lot about each other, too. As a group, they explore, play, sit and talk, and so on.
As this timeline moves on, we gradually learn, through the children’s eyes, of some carefully kept secrets that some people in the town are keeping. And, little by little, we learn about some truths that many people would rather keep hidden. But, since few people pay a lot of attention to the children, most aren’t even really aware of what they uncover. Even the children aren’t really sure of what they know.
The other timeline begins some forty years later. Retired police detective Will Sloane knows that he doesn’t have a lot longer to live. He’s resigned to that, and chosen to live out the time he has in a small town in Spain. But one day, he sees something in a curio shop that makes him think of an old case. Suddenly unaccountably homesick for his native Wales, he decides to return. He’s hoping that, unlikely as it seems, he’ll be able to solve a mystery that he wasn’t able to solve years earlier.
It seems that, forty years earlier, a child went missing. There was a thorough search, interviews were conducted with the child’s friends, and so on. But no trace of the child – not even a body – was ever found. Now Sloane has seen something that makes him think of the case, and he decides to return to Wales and see if he can find the answers.
As the children’s story moves a bit forward, we slowly learn more about them. And we see that they’re all connected, in some way, to some of the secrets that the town has been keeping. And, as Sloane re-acquaints himself with the town and its inhabitants, we learn what happened to the children. The stories come together in the end, if I can put it that way.
Most of the story takes place in a small Welsh town, and Horton places the reader there distinctly. The lifestyle, the culture, and, in a few cases, the language, are uniquely Welsh. As a side note, there is some use of Welsh words, but readers who don’t speak that language will want to know that there’s a glossary at the end (at least in my edition) that explains those words. And most of them can be understood from context. We see the town both as it was in 1962/3 and in more modern times, so readers also see how village life has change in the intervening decades.
This particular small town has its share of oddball characters. One or two are oddball in a funny way. Some, though, are not funny at all. Without spoiling the story, I can say that a few are the type that children go out of their way to avoid, and sometimes, with reason.
A good part of the story is told from the perspectives of the four children. So, we get to know them. Fatty is the group’s leader. He’s got a terrible home situation, so he’s very much used to taking care of himself. He’s extremely bright, and sometimes gets a bit too close to trouble for comfort. Iffy admires Fatty very much. She’s not quite as brave as he is, but she’s no ‘shrinking violet.’ Iffy is an orphan who lives with her grandparents. They love her, but don’t have the energy to go chasing after her. Billy has had a tragedy in his family. For that reason, he doesn’t speak. He’s bright, though, and has his own way of communicating. Bessie is the only one of the four whose family has money. She’s the best-dressed, and is somewhat prissy. She’s also the first to shrink back from things that are scary or messy.
And there are some creepy moments in the novel. This isn’t a light ‘frolic.’ It’s the sometimes-dark story of a small town with a lot of secrets, some of which are ugly. The story is tinged with some darkness, and the town has its share of real sadness and sorrow. This is not a lovely, warm, nostalgic look at a candy-box village. Readers who don’t care for profanity or for mention of bodily functions will want to know that both appear in the novel. That said, though, the focus isn’t on these things; it’s on the story.
The truths about some of the people in town are shared through the children’s perspectives, and it’s interesting to see how they sometimes misinterpret what they are hearing. To say more would be too close to giving away spoilers for my taste. But it’s interesting to learn what the children think, as opposed to what’s really going on. And some of those misinterpretations add welcome light moments to the book. So do the children’s opinions of some of the people in town.
A Jarful of Angels is the story of a small Welsh town in the days before malls, the Internet, or cable television. It features four children who are more woven into the drama of their village’s history than they think. It also features a former copper who can’t forget those children, or the case that concerned them. But what’s your view? Have you read A Jarful of Angels? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 24 April/Tuesday, 25 April – Wife of the Gods – Kwei Quartey
Monday, 1 May/Tuesday, 2 May – Can Anybody Help Me? – Sinéad Crowley
Monday, 8 May/Tuesday, 9 May – Lonesome Point – Ian Vasquez