The opening of Angels Turn Their Backs is starkly, effectively realist. Addy’s anxiety, her fears, her phobia, are portrayed with a raw emotion that suggests personal experience, or at least a strong familiarity and empathy with the subject. Reading the first two chapters, I thought to myself: where is Margaret Buffie’s signature recourse to the paranormal? How on earth is she going to integrate the paranormal into this powerfully realist exploration of anxiety? I should not have worried (been so anxious…).
Addy suffers from agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces, of leaving the security of one’s home/house/enclosed space to enter into the wide world. She moves to Winnipeg with her mother, who is running from a messy separation, and finds herself in a run-down boarding house, with a “storage” room that makes strange sounds. The strange sounds turn out to be the natural, if exotic, sounds of a African Gray parrot, left by the previous owner of the house. The previous owner, however, provides the paranormal aspect I was waiting for. Lotta Engel had in her old age suffered from agoraphobia, but her tragic story had deeper roots, roots that did not let her soul rest after death. Through the heightened emotional attunement that her condition creates, Addy taps into Lotta’s soul’s distress, and by helping Lotta find peace, Addy ultimately helps herself.
This might seem a simplistic relation of cause and effect, but Buffie has once again created an intricate mosaic of personalities, souls, emotional planes for her characters to embody or inhabit. The ghostly Lotta begs Addy to finish her life’s-work; Page, another border, is caught in an abusive relationship; Harmon, the seemingly lower-class land-lord, is attracted to Addy’s mother, who returns his respect and affection; Harmon’s son Sean is attracted to Addy; Addy is wary of everyone except Page, trusting her intimate acquaintances as little as she trusts the outside world. This complex web of relationships plays out against the internal monologue that is Addy’s mental and emotional state as she struggles with her own affliction and the reality of a world that expects teenagers to attend school, go shopping for their mothers, and generally maintain a social presence in the world. The narrative effect is brilliant, and the reader comes away from the story with a fundamental understanding of how it must feel to suffer from the anxiety that agoraphobia creates, and how hard it is for the world to understand an anxiety that is primarily internal, an anxiety of inaction. Through her undeniable affection for both Page and her mother—and her involvement in Lotta’s history—Addy manages to find the strength to begin to overcome her fears. At the end of the novel, though, her healing has only begun. Buffie is honest in asserting that emotional traumas are not overcome through one monumental incident, but take years of hard work on the part of the sufferer. Through her involvement in the lives of those around her, Addy has taken the first steps on that road; as readers, we trust that the people she loves will support her as she moves towards a fuller healing. Would that all sufferers of agoraphobia and other anxieties had as strong a support system for their journeys.