In The Spotlight: Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels

Hello, All,

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


Filed under A Jarful of Angels, Babs Horton

21 responses to “In The Spotlight: Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels

  1. This sounds very good, Margot. I do like a story with multiple timelines.

  2. Not sure the child’s eye view of life really takes my fancy, but it does sound like an interesting evocation of a specific time and place…

    • It really is, FictionFan. I’m not sure, either, what you might think of the child’s-eye view, as it does in some ways complicate the story. But it’s not hard to work out what’s actually being discussed, if I can put it that way. If you do try it, I’ll be interested in what you think of Horton’s choice of perspectives.

    • I’ve really grown to love stories told from a child’s point of view that is convincing. Their POV can become so humorous because they misinterpret. Now, if writers use the child’s POV to do the lazy strategy of “oh-things-aren’t-what-they-seem” or “wow-the-kids-don’t-understand-anything-about-grown-ups,” then it’s going to be awful. I’ve written a few stories from a girl’s POV–usually 11-12 is where I excel, though I’m not sure why. Perhaps because it was such a memorable age for me.

      • I know what you mean, GtL, about using POVs that feel comfortable. I’ve noticed, myself, that there are some I feel more comfortable with than others. You also have a well-taken point about using the child’s POV as a way to get around things, if I may put it that way, rather than because it really makes sense. Everyone’s different, of course, so your mileage may vary, as the saying goes. But as for me, I thought Horton did a solid job of making us believe those children’s POVs. If you read this one, I’ll be interested in what you think of that choice.

  3. Col

    I’ve not heard of either author or book before. I like the dual strand timeline in my books, it might be worth checking this one out I think, thanks.

    • To be honest, Col, it’s different to the sort of novel you usually review. But it’s an interesting look at the community, and it’s got some wit in it. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it .

  4. Completely new to me – it sounds rather compelling. I don’t like the chocolate box depiction of small communities, and the child’s point of view can be a risky undertaking too, but this sounds like it has been handled well.

    • I think it has, Marina Sofia. And I know just what you mean about the ‘candy box’ sort of depiction of a small town. This isn’t like that at all. In fact, in some places, it’s quite dark. Certainly Horton doesn’t hold back about some things. If you read this, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  5. I read his novel years ago now and whilst some of the details have escaped my memory I can still remember the essence of it. The setting of the small welsh town has particularly stuck with me. I also remember that it was dark and unnerving in places, which I hadn’t been expecting when I started reading. I’ve recommend this to quite a few people over the years, and all have said they enjoyed it.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Hayley. I think you’re right that it is unnerving in some places. And, yes, the Welsh setting is, I think, done beautifully. I can see why it’s stayed with you.

  6. Dual timelines are fascinating when done correctly. This sounds like one that I’d enjoy. Thanks for the introduction, Margot.

  7. I do love small town mysteries and this one sounds really interesting especially as it is done in dual time-line which I also enjoy when they are well executed. Another one for my wish-list and I was doing so well!!

    • Sorry about that part, Cleo, but turnabout and all that… 😉 – In all seriousness, I think you might like this one. In my opinion, Horton does the dual timeline effectively, so that the stories do end up woven together, and so that it’s easy to understand what’s happening when. And the small-town setting is, again, just in my opinion, effectively done, too. If you do get to this one (I know how the TBR thing is!), I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  8. Aha. Now I read this book some years ago – pre-blog days – and what I remember is that I felt really stupid at the end because I did not understand something about the book – let’s just say it was to do with the title? I was curious and mystified — and all my other thoughts about the book have gone, I just remember being puzzled, and unable to solve that problem. Can you help me? Is it a spoiler? It seems the reader was meant to know what something was, but I couldn’t for the life of me get it…

    • I know what you mean, Moira. I had to think about that question long and hard. I can’t answer you directly without giving too much away. And I’m not 100% sure I’m correct, anyway. Interesting enough, you aren’t the only one who wants to know. As a matter of fact, here was what Babs Horton had to say when she was asked. I feel comfortable sharing that much, since she did publicly.

      • Oh my goodness Margot thank you so much for finding that! It doesn’t quite answer the question, but does make me feel not so stupid about not understanding. And how marvellous that Babs Horton went into a forum to discuss it – doesn’t she sound nice?

        • She really does, Moira. I thought that was very kind of her to stop in and chat in the forum like that. I hope she will do a follow-up to A Jarful of Angels. I’d love to read more.

  9. Pingback: Weekly Wrap Up (April 23) – Cleopatra Loves Books

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