By David Wetzel on June 27, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
Jerred Metz’s The Angel of Mons is certainly a work of magical realism, but that term fails to describe the shimmering interplay (and interplayfulness) of the real and supernatural in this rich, dense, mythically powerful novel. Based on a legend—or was it?—that grew out of the first battle in World War I between the British and Germans on August 23, 1914, at Mons, Belgium, the story begins with the factual death of Maurice Dease, commander of a Vickers machine gun crew at the Nimy Bridge, and describes a meteorological phenomenon—or was it?—that enveloped and stymied the advancing German army in what many observers described as the image of St. George, allowing the vastly outnumbered British forces to begin an orderly retreat. From there Metz elaborates on that sighting, blending the story of the British retreat through the Forest of Mormal in northern France with visions of Joan d’Arc who guides them to safety along a whispering road cut through the forest, though never discovered in history books. They eventually make it to the British Front by way of other visions and miracles descending on characters both historical and fictional.
If this were the extent of The Angel of Mons, it would be good magical realism. But returning the British forces to safety only begins Metz’s fictional celebration-study of legend and myth. Using the deaths of three key participants—Dease, Malcom Leckie, and Tommy Atkins—Metz takes us into what could be considered the shared Twilight Zone of the Coleridge-Wordsworth dynamic: Coleridge making the ethereal real and Wordsworth making the real ethereal. A secondary cast of characters (who happen to be icons of modern history transmuted into entirely believable fictional counterparts) draw out the mystery of Mons through a superb device: twentieth-century spiritualism and psychic phenomena. We find connections between W. B. Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle (and his “living” counterpart Sherlock Holmes), and even Winston Churchill—all connected, in some way, with the question of proving communication with the dead. It appears that such proof does exist—if only within Metz’s London of early September 1914.
This is the Coleridge side of the dynamic. But the book ends on the Wordsworth side, with the death, in the very last hour of the war—and again at Nimy Bridge—of Private Atkins. In his exalted afterlife, he speaks directly to the reader as the Angel of Grief and Memory, calling forth an image both apocalyptical and transcendent. The vision seems to come out of the Book of Revelation, the theosophical idea of the Brotherhood, and—well—Moby Dick. Truly, the spiritual and philosophical density of Metz’s The Angel of Mons is much like Melville’s, and it’s filled with character, dialogue, and drama worthy of what we might see and overhear on the decks of the Pequod. In short, it is a fascinating book on many levels.