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The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson
Cover Artist: Getty Images
Review by Mel Jacob
Soho Press Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781569479797
Date: 06 December 2011 List Price $24.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Based on a true story set around World War I in a small village in Hungary, Jessica Gregson tells the story of Sari Arany in Angel Makers. Old legends talk of witch women who brought death, hence the term angel maker. Authorities call the village men to serve in the war and eventually a prison camp is sited nearby. Things change in unexpected ways and end with women no longer willing to put up with wife-beaters or troublesome invalid husbands. Mass murder follows.

Sari's mother died at birth and her father, sort of a village wise man, treats the illness and other problems of the villagers. He educates and raises her as an equal. Because of her mother's death and Sari's different appearance, the villagers gossip about her and think she causes bad luck.

She attracts the interest of the oldest son of a wealthy family, and they plan to marry when she turns eighteen. With her father dead, Sari turns to Judit, the village midwife and some say witch, both for a home and to learn what a midwife does.

When the camp for war prisoners opens, Italian prisoners prove an irresistible draw for many of the village women. At first, Sari stays away, but soon at the pleading of a friend, she agrees to treat a sick man. Soon she is administering painkillers, stomach medicine, and other treatments.

She meets Marco, a university professor, and they form a friendship. Besides Judit, Sari has no one else with whom to discuss ideas and books. Marco teaches her Italian since his German is poor. He opens new vistas for Sari.

The village women are happy with no beatings, new freedoms, and with loving romantic partners. Then rumors of the war ending come as unwelcome news. A few wounded men return including Sari's fiancÚ. War has changed them and their relationships. He becomes aggressive especially when Sari becomes pregnant. Tragedy ensues and sets the course of what becomes an inevitable series of deaths. The only questions are where and how will it end?

Gregson presents village life with attention to detail and builds a portrait of a coming-of-age story with war looming as a distant threat. The insularity and security of the old way of life no longer hold. Villagers must struggle for new ways to cope. When the men return, it appears at first as if the past will reassert itself, but the changes are too deep and conflict becomes inevitable. This is more of a Columbo style of mystery with the only real questions being what happens to Sari and can she escape hanging. Gregson offers an interesting novel of a place and period not known to many readers. Her subsequent novel, The Ice Cream Army takes place in Australia, featuring two young Turks, is also based on real events.

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