What a strange book this is. Look at the subtitle – "A novel of the nature of angels and the ways of man" – and you'd reasonably think, that it is about angels, and the history of their interaction with mankind. And it is, sort of.
Its central figure is Antonius Bellori, a 16th-century Italian, who as a boy stumbles across a pair of angels, high in the mountains. "Their faces are white and skull-like," we learn, "their eye sockets deep, cheekbones high, lips bloodless. They have long, fair hair, thin necks, slender wrists, claw-like fingers. And they're shaking. One of them has hands that shake." They are standing by a river, fishing disconsolately for their dinner. This is a far cry from the cherubim and seraphim of the Bible, with their mighty swords and their blazing light.
Stricken by what he has seen, Bellori devotes his life to the study of angels, and concludes that they, and so too the divine, have altered since the time of the Creation. By the time he sees them again, in his 50s, the angels have degenerated further: now they crouch over the carcass of a dead deer, ripping at it with their teeth, no better than animals.
If this quasi-theological fantasy was all the book was, it would certainly still be of interest, but Bellori's obsession is not the half of it. We only ever read him indirectly, through the words of a long-unidentified narrator. This narrator pauses his account of the Italian's life for two extended takes on familiar Bible stories. The first, at a novella-length 100 pages, treats Cain and Abel; the second, at twice that length, the Flood.
It is here the book's true weirdness and brilliance shine out. We see life among those early people from Genesis: tilling the soil, building houses and preparing sacrifices to God, always aware of the glow of the Cherubim guarding Eden, over the mountains. But wait: they have stoves, and button-fly trousers, and guns.
After the pedantry of Bellori's angels-and-pinhead sophistry, it is a relief to give yourself over to the achingly patient, serenely anachronistic descriptions of this pioneer life. And then, with 50 pages to go, the book changes again, casting a severe, contemporary light back over all that has gone before. Not just strange, this is a quite extraordinary novel, and completely original.