My Book of Life by Angel: A Review

Not so long ago, Angel was an ordinary girl.  But after her mother’s death shattered her family, Angel began shoplifting, and a manipulative, sweet-talking man named Call gave her “candy” (a.k.a. crack) for the first time and took her in when her dad kicked her out.   Now, Call is Angel’s pimp, and Angel has to turn tricks on a Vancouver street corner to keep him happy.

But when Angel’s friend Serena disappears, Angel becomes determined to get clean and to write down her story and the story of others like her, as Serena had urged her to do.

Martine Leavitt has written a beautiful, haunting, terrifying, and delightful verse novel. Each word thrums with meaning, and the poems present a remarkable blend of lovely imagery and believable, matter-of-fact commentary from an extraordinarily loving and lovable first-person narrator.  I adore Angel’s observations, which surprised me, made me chuckle, and made me think.  “God thinks he is so funny sometimes,” she says at one point.  And while looking at posters of missing children, she muses:

I wonder how those kids felt,
stars of the missing children’s
poster club,
but not being anywhere, just missing.
I wondered if they ever said,
I would never wear my hair like that.

As Angel writes her story, she recognizes the power of words and names to shape people’s identities.  Once she has had this realization, she recalls:

I was smiling with the knowledge
of it—
that if you say the word whore
you can make a girl into
but she can make words do things,
I smiled to know
that you can’t see a thing
unless you put on words like
Everything is just a wobbly vision
without a word,
something at the side of your eyes.

I love that simile there, of words functioning like glasses.  In a book, there are few things I enjoy more than a simile or metaphor that makes me think, “Yes!  That’s exactly right, but I’d never thought of it from that angle before, and now I see something new!”  I had many of those moments while reading this novel.  This isn’t the first book I’ve read that explores the motif of the power of words, but boy does it explore that motif powerfully.

Throughout the novel, phrases from John Milton’s Paradise Lost appear as markers between groups of poems, and Angel’s story echoes and builds upon book nine of Paradise Lost, which she has to read out loud to one of her “dates” as he “does his business.”  The Paradise Lost references enrich the novel’s themes and encourage readers to make connections.

This is an important story inspired by the women who disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside between 1983 and 2002, but it doesn’t feel message-driven or heavy-handed at all.  It feels like a brave and loving peek into the life of one very memorable heroine.   I’ve seen the book recommended for readers 14 and up, and I think it would be a wonderful book to read in class or as a book club choice to discuss in high school.  I plan to suggest it to some of my mature eighth grade readers later this year.