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You need not abide by God’s will. 

The Angel Maker by Belgian Stefan Brijs is nearly impossible to let go. It kept me up until my eyers were read and teary in the early hours of Friday morning. The story is captivating and frankly I was a bit scared to go to bed with the prospect of having nightmares about it.

Hardly anything happens in the little village of Wolfheim, situated close to the boundary of three countries – Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. Understandably, the arrival of doctor Victor Hoppe after nearly twenty years absence causes a huge stir in the village life. Alongside the doctor brings his triplets – little disfigured boys with enormously large heads and harelips just like the one their father used to have. The village people’s curiosity is not only unsatisfied but even greatly stimulated. Michael, Gabriel and Rafael, named after the three archangels, suffer from a mysterious illness and hardly ever leave the house. The only person who is allowed to see them in addition to their father is an old ex-teacher. Charlotte Maenhout, hired initially as a housekeeper, soon takes the role of a tutor and confidante to the little boys. The mysteries around the Hoppe family keep building up and soon Charlotte begins doubting the sanity and goodwill of Victor Hoppe.

Structured in three parts, the novel first explores the relationship between Charlotte and the boys, through which she comes upon a terrible revelation about their disabilities. Next, the reader is taken through the life of Victor Hoppe, from his confinement into a mental institution to his rise as one of the most prominent and promising medical researchers in the field of embryology. The last part puts the story together, tying up the link between Victor’s traumatized childhood and the life of his triplets. As the terrible secrets are revealed, the reader feels both repelled by and sorry for Victor and the rest of the characters. I never could quite form a connection with any of them; I just wished that someone would show some humanity at some point. The ending is shoking but rather expected – the development of the whole novel eventually led to that moment but I was too busy trying to make sense of it all and forming my opinion to actually predict it.

On the surface it seems there is nothing so special about The Angel Maker. The novel is written simply and clearly and the main theme is not so revolutionary. However, Stefan Brijs is a skillful writer, who is able to create a compelling narrative out of a rather overused topic. The result is a book that both interests and stimulates, leaving open for reader interpretation sensitive topics such as the clash between good and evil, science and religion, madness and genius, and belief and doubt.

Exploring the science-fiction topic of human cloning, The Angel Maker doesn’t actually take place in the near future but during the period from the 40s to the 90s. Human cloning will happen eventually – that is not the main question. Instead, Brijs forces us to elaborate on the application of cloning. What people may be cloned – dead, mentally disabled, or physically ill? If you are able to clone yourself someday, would you change something? Would you alter your personality, erase some trauma from the past, remove your disabilities, make yourself smarter, prettier, more successful? Or are you going to clone yourself exactly as you are now and use your cloning for extra human parts? Is the latter (or any of it for that matter) morally ethical?

Science in the form of human cloning is directly opposed to its perpetual opponent – religion. Victor Hoppe is brought up in a Catholic school and is exposed to God at an early age. Soon, however, Victor becomes disillusioned with religion and starts a never-ending battle with God. God is evil, Jesus is good. Victor Hoppe doesn’t see the world in grey colours – for him everything is either good or evil, white or black, right or wrong. Unable to forgive God for abandoning his son Jesus to the cross, Victor dedicates his life to beating God in his own game – creating and taking away life. A victim rather than a criminal, Victor is unable to understand the peccability of his actions and the harm they cause to everyone that surrounds him. His Asperger’s syndrome, which wasn’t quite understood in the 50s when Victor is growing up, is both a blessing and a curse. Victor is extremely intelligent and insightful but he lacks abilities in human interaction and communication. Abandoned by his parents for most of his life, unable to find consolation in religion or friends, Victor creates a life of his own, in which his ambition is mainly driven by religious intolerance and by the desire to be omnipotent. The tenacity with which he pursues his dream is almost admirable if it weren’t for his absolute intolerance towards other people or his arrogance. The ending is disastrous for everyone involved. However, one may say Victor came closer to his dream of beating God. Despite the means.