The Angel of Goliad begins in Houston, Texas in the present day when Magda O’Toole, an investigative journalist, wakes from a four month coma following a fall from a ladder and is stunned to discover that she can now speak Spanish. On her return home, she finds a package from Matamoros, Mexico waiting for her. It contains a miniature of a beautiful nineteenth century woman with the name Francita Alavez with the date 1836 written on the back. Intrigued by the portrait, she travels to Matamoros and on to Toluca, hoping under cover of writing a travel article to discover more about Francita Alavez. In Toluca she meets handsome Miguel Villatoro, academic historian and sometime travel guide who is as interested in Magda as her quest. In the buildings still standing from the 1830s, Magda catches increasingly frequent glimpses of Francita, who can see her and greets Magda as a friend. Back in Matamoros, on a visit to the cathedral, Magda finds herself swept back to 1836 where the Texas Revolution is underway. And she is unable to return.
The centre of the novel is Magda’s journey alongside Francita as she travels with the Mexican army. Francita is accompanying her lover, Telesforo, her childhood sweetheart who ignored his heart and married according to his family’s direction. Jean M Roberts conjures up time and place well describing the culture and its conventions as well as the elements of everyday life. Her explanations of the politics and the manoeuvres of the Mexican army are handled with a light touch and feed naturally into the narrative. Her recreation of the privations experienced by the army, particularly during the period of retreat, and the essential roles played by the women, the soldiers’ wives and lovers, as they travelled are realistic and compelling. Although I have no deep knowledge of Mexican history, I felt that Roberts was even-handed in her presentation of the major historical persons described in the novel, especially in her treatment of the conflicts of conscience within the Mexican commanders when faced by General Santa Anna’s orders regarding American prisoners.
The characters of Magda and Francita are well rounded and appealing, each in her own way. Francita displays the quiet strength of a woman brought up in a society where she is allowed little of the autonomy of men yet has stepped beyond the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Telesforo is believably self-absorbed as would be expected in a man who would leave wife and children behind and drag the woman he claimed to love along to witness the outcomes of battle. I found it particularly satisfying to have Magda’s twenty-first century view of him confirm mine.
The tension increases as the historical portion of the novel progresses. I had concerns for Magda’s safety and worried that her foreknowledge would get her into trouble. And twisted through all the nineteenth-century concerns was the question of whether Magda would ever manage to return to her own time.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Angel of Goliad. It is immersive historical fiction tightly wrapped about with a nail-biting time slip mystery. I wanted to keep reading and thought about it when I wasn’t reading – all the marks of a great read.
I received an advanced review copy of The Angel of Goliad from the author.