BOOKS: Wine, women and aggrieved angels

The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox Chatto pounds 10
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The Independent Culture
Sobran Jodeau, a stubbornly wilful, taciturn peasant, works his vines to produce creditable vin de pays. Some grapes he sells to his patron, the Comte de Valday, to press into the better wines of Chateau Vully, situated a few kilometres up the road. They are an odd family, the Jodeaus. Sobran's wife Celeste battles with sanity between producing numerous children; his brother Leon struggles piously with the church and more shamefully with his own masochistic pleasures. But despite rumoured glimpses among discredited villagers, none would ever guess that once a year Sobran Jodeau communes with an angel.

In 1808, during one of his eccentric midnight rambles around his vineyards, Sobran encounters an angel named Xas; and so begins the Vintner's luck. They arrange to meet in the same spot every June 27 to share a bottle of wine and conversation; and every year, incrementally, Sobran's wines improve as their friendship itself ages and matures.

Fifty-five annual instalments and an epilogue compel swift reading of this economical yet satisfyingly full narrative. Sobran unsurprisingly falls in love with the physical perfection of Xas, the corporeal image of Christ. Knox avoids any cumbersome symbolism by sensitively and humorously exploring the mutual adjustments and concessions within any relationship between the flesh and the spirit. The villagers whisper about the vintner's midsummer midnight assignations, but assume his lover to be Aurora de Valday, the Comte's atheist niece.

There is a quiet resilience to Xas who, even as an angel, manages to convince that he is the aggrieved party. He fell from grace for his heretical suspicion that God did not in fact make the world, and is more of an autocratic "divine plagiarist". Knox conveys Lucifer's grandly combative relationship to God with a certain Miltonian resonance and, when Lucifer makes a brief appearance to clip Xas's wings (literally, brutally) the archangel shimmers with power beyond human focus. Xas possesses a silken, sheeny plausibility in this world as he explores his sensory capacities and limitations. The author glories in richly tactile textures to counterpoint the slippery movements of the divine: Sobran's body in vibrant youth and shrivelling age is vividly figured, as is the crude horror of a mid-19th century mastectomy to excise a cancer in Aurora's breast.

Elizabeth Knox tallies the closure of Sobran Jodeau's life, the unacknowledged departure of Aurora, and the adroit confessions of Celeste into a secular reckoning more moving than the decline of Michael Ondaatje's English patient. Sobran's death concludes the narrative in the same way that Ondaatje's love-demented Almasy finally closes his Herodotus. "What is faith when you feel you've lost something forever?" Xas demands plaintively. Knox comprehends the irredeemable sadness of loss and, more than any writer I have read for years, manages to touch the heart by paring sophistry and digression from the essential cores of her characters. Beautifully written, The Vintner's Luck possesses a complex bouquet of conceits and ideas but it is the simplicity of Elizabeth Knox's writing that in the end draws out the savour of human experience and compassion.