Skip Navigation

Submitted Literature

Gabriel's Angel

By Mark A. Radcliffe

Review

Is Hell other people - or other people in enforced group therapy? Mark Radcliffe’s first novel, Gabriel’s Angel, is a fiction that explores the complexities of group therapy and group dynamics within an entertaining – and at times very funny – plot. The narrative focuses around Gabriel Bell, in a coma after a road traffic accident and stuck in a version of purgatory that consists of group therapy run by angels who decide, on the basis of ‘work’ done in therapy, who enters heaven or hell and who get to return to their lives enriched by the therapy they’ve received. Also populating Gabriel’s personal purgatory are a range of characters including a contract killer, his victim and the driver of the car that hit Gabriel.

The main thrust of Radcliffe’s novel is a sharp and witty exposé of the core notions of right/wrong, good/bad that underpin certain psychotherapies. The pre-death psychotherapy project is described as follows:

 

“Angels, by tradition, watch and sometimes guard. They have been known to deliver messages and to fight the soldiers of darkness when necessary, but theirs has, for all the excitement, been a fundamentally simple existence, their being characterised by a clarity around Good and Bad that other people can only dream about.

It was this sense of deep-felt confusion that played on the mind of God. And so he send the ever faithful Peter to set up a project that reflected the complexities of modern times. Pre-death therapy. A project that didn’t judge but rather enquired as to what brings a person to wherever they are and offers them a choice, albeit a very slim choice, to do something about it. To make themselves better. Most importantly, and this is perhaps to what Peter clung, it was an endeavour that sought to heal.

Many of the angels who were called upon to make this experiment work had their doubts. They had worked for God for a very long time. They may have muttered things like ‘If it ain’t broke...’ but Peter said that as people evolved, so should heaven. He might not have believed it, but he said it nonetheless, and that is what counts. He added that the choices people make are less clear morally than they once were, that while the commandments contain ‘a useful if not fully comprehensive guide’, they don’t always legislate for the many confusing influences people encounter.” (p. 38-39)

 

Similarly, the training of the angels as psychotherapists is also commented upon in a somewhat wry manner:

 

“When they first introduced the angels to this new way of working, they showed them lots of films of different types of therapists. There was one man, a very serious American, who measured the quality of his work by how little he had to say. He could do 50 minutes - $140 worth – without making a single sound. He would shrug, furrow the odd brow, or turn his hand over and over in order to encourage the patient to say more.

Clemitius was transfixed, he considered him a genius; he said the man ‘created a neutral and safe space for the kind of deep exploration and understanding that changed lives.’ Christopher said he thought he was a thief. Clemitius said this illustrated that Christopher simply didn’t understand the nuance of therapy. Christopher replied that the genius could have been replaced by a sedated monkey.” (p. 225)

 

Of course, just as not all psychotherapists are ‘Good’ (in a therapeutic and moral sense), neither are all angels – the group dynamics played out within the therapeutic community are fascinating in this novel as well as providing a thrilling narrative journey with plenty of twists and turns along the way. As the novel reaches it’s climax, the risks involved in the psychotherapeutic relationship are portrayed through the misdeeds of both the Good and the Bad angels:

 

“He could see that from a certain perspective it was all his fault. Not believing enough, not simply doing his job. Therapists mediate; that is all he had to do, just let the process run through him and not burden it with whatever he felt. He had failed to do that. He knew that he had become involved in ordinary lives and worse, had been drawn into some kind of conflict with Clemitius at the expense of those ordinary lives.

If I had done nothing, if I had seen what Clemitius called the bigger picture, he thought then [...] Clemitius would not have strayed from the room he owned as a therapist, if Christopher had not given him reason.” (p. 273)

  

Paralleling the narrative thread of pre-death therapy is the story of Gabriel’s girlfriend Ellie who, when Gabriel is injured, midway through an IVF cycle – one which she is desperate to continue. Indeed, Radcliffe’s insights into the emotional and physical rollercoaster of fertility treatment are striking in their emotional realism and immensely powerful – a theme rarely explored so sensitively in the fiction world. The lengths that Ellie is forced to go to in order to get comatose Gabriel’s sperm for the fertilisation part of her treatment are depicted with an appropriate and perceptive blend of humour, tenderness and warmth.

Radcliffe’s background as a psychiatric nurse makes this a thought provokingly realistic novel. A recommended read for all those who work within, attend or have an interest in psychotherapy.

Key Themes:

  • Professional / Occupational Stress
  • Psychotherapy

Reference: Mark A., Radcliffe. 2010. Gabriel's Angel. Bluemoose, 2010

Reviewer

- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Thursday 23rd September 2010