cover image The Maltese Angel

The Maltese Angel

Catherine Cookson. Simon & Schuster, $22.5 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-671-89649-2

Attempting to compress a sizable chunk of history (1886-1921) into this saga, Cookson (The Rag Nymph) ends up with a lackluster panorama of an inbred English village lumbering slowly and painfully into the 20th century. When honest, hardworking farmer Ward Gibson forsakes his childhood sweetheart to marry a woman from outside the village, he sets in motion a macabre series of events that will touch the lives of gentry and townsfolk alike. His rejected girlfriend goes mad and murders his wife, but there is no sympathy for Ward, who continues to suffer the hostility of the clannish villagers. When his young daughter is raped by three local drunks, Ward is again ostracized; his unique and terrible revenge only exacerbates an enmity that persists through the next generation. The local gentry, the Ramsmores, are abruptly thrust into this grim morass when young Gerald Ramsmore befriends the harshly treated child born of the rape. The high point of the novel, a stirring and impassioned set piece, concerns Gerald's courageous yet devastating participation in WWI, but it's poorly integrated into the rest of the story. Cookson has created one of the most loathsome villages in English literature here, but the tribulations of its unpalatable melange of aristocrats and commoners are disjointed, sometimes unconvincing and stretched too thin. Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club alternate. (Nov.)