Today I review a novel by an author who never fails to impress me (and to make me cry as well), one linked to the first of his novels I ever read.
Michel: Fallen Angel of Paris by Hans M Hirschi
Preparing to evacuate from an approaching hurricane, Haakon Chitragar stumbles upon the diary of his first love, Michel, who died from AIDS in his arms in November of 1986. Diary in hands, Haakon embarks on a journey back in time, to learn about Michel’s life, his difficult and painful path to accepting his true self, despite pressure from family, church, and society.
Michel – Fallen Angel of Paris is the story of one young man, one of countless victims of a pandemic still claiming lives every day, almost forty years after his death on a park bench in Paris. It’s also a story about the most unlikely of friendships, connections across time and space, acceptance, redemption, and learning to love and to be loved for who you are.
Michel – Fallen Angel of Paris is based on a character from The Fallen Angels of Karnataka. While both stories are intertwined, Michel can be read as a stand-alone novel.
“Michel – Fallen Angel of Paris is a masterpiece. Brilliantly written, it tells a riveting, heartfelt story that shows that, in spite of all the crises (present and pre-existing) there is still reason for hope. Michel is an awe-inspiring and memorable read, impossible to put down.”
– Alina Oswald, Arts Editor, A&U Magazine
About the author:
Hans M Hirschi has been writing stories ever since he was a child. Adulthood and the demands of corporate life put an end to his fictional writing for over twenty years. A global executive in training and channel development, Hans has traveled the world extensively and published a couple of non-fictional titles on learning and management.
The birth of his son and the subsequent parental leave provided him with the opportunity to once again unleash his creative writing, writing feel-good stories you’ll remember.
Having little influence over his brain’s creative workings, he simply indulges it and goes with the flow. However, the deep passion for a better world, for love and tolerance are a read thread throughout both his creative and non-fictional work.
Hans lives with his husband, son, and pets on a small island off the west coast of Sweden. English isn’t his first or even second language. It’s his seventh!
Contact Hans through his website at http://www.hirschi.se.
I was provided with an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
I have been following Hans M Hirschi’s career for a few years now, and he is one of a group of authors whose books I immediately add to my list (and as close to the top as I can), as soon as I know they’ve published something new. I don’t hesitate. I know I’m going to get a book that will touch my heart, make me think, and will often deal with uncomfortable and/or controversial subjects (his adult books are never “light and easy” reads, but they are well worth the emotional challenge), whose characters I’ll get to know and love (or hate, sometimes), and a story that I will not forget. And, although the author explains that he had a pretty tough time of writing this book, and the whole process took him longer than usual, the results are up to his usual standards, if not better.
This book held another hook for me, as the main character had appeared in one of the author’s previous novels, The Fallen Angels of Karnataka, the first I had read by him, and one where I had been left hoping to know more about the background and the previous story of some of the characters. I agree with the author, though, that this book could be read and enjoyed without having read the previous novel, as the story told here is complete and fairly independent, and there is sufficient information provided to understand the few references to that book. And those who have read it, even if it was a long time ago, will enjoy catching up with some of the characters and getting a fuller understanding of the build-up to the events of that book.
This is a coming-of-age story. Perhaps because the future looks uncertain and dangerous and he is facing a crisis; when Haakon comes across his first love’s diary, he decides to read it. He had only read the bits related to their relationship, but they hadn’t known each other long, and there was much he didn’t know. We hear about Michel, a young boy of 12 when he gets his diary, living in Rennes. We learn about his family, his very religious (Roman Catholic) mother, and his father, very concerned about appearances. They used to live in St. Malo but when his father couldn’t carry on being a fisherman, they had to move somewhere with more opportunities. The family is never well off, and they struggle to make ends meet, although they don’t have any serious problems. As an only child, his mother in particular is always concerned about him and insists that he help at mass and that he meet the Monseigneur, for spiritual guidance. If you suspect the worst… Well, you’d be right. Michel doesn’t realise until many years later what had really happened, but he discovers he is gay, at a time when that was not easily accepted, thanks to some unlikely friends. He is lucky and finds support in an ersatz family (his real parents are not so understanding), although he is also a victim of hate crimes, and abuse, and has to live through pretty traumatic experiences. When things seem to be looking up, an illness that changed everything and took the lives of so many, strikes him down, allowing him only the briefest of glimpses at happiness. Haakon realises that there are many unanswered questions and important people in Michel’s life who deserve closure as much as he does. And he decides to put things to rights.
The novel explores issues like sexual identity, growing up in a small town and being “different”, religious faith and religious intolerance, traditional families and intergenerational conflict, LGTBI culture in the 1970s and 80s, AIDS, guilt, grief, acceptance, second chances, happiness, charity, sex abuse, intolerance and hate crimes, and friendship and love…
We get some of the story directly from Michel’s pen, but most of it is mediated through Haakon, and that adds a layer of interpretation and also his emotional reaction to what he reads. He learns many things he didn’t know about Michel, and there is also his own life and the present time to be taken care of. Michel’s story covers from 1976 (well, from 1964 when he was born) until 1986; there are also some small sections of present-day narration at the beginning and in the middle of the book, and once Haakon has finished reading the diary, the final section follows him and his husband in their trip to France, in the present.
I’ve particularly liked the way the story is told, as it allows us to see what it must have been like for Michel at the time, and also provides us with the perspective of somebody who is familiar with some of the issues and with bits of the story, but not all. There are heart-wrenching moments, moments that will horrify and upset many readers (be warned), but Haakon is exactly as Michel describes him: non-judgmental, kind, and understanding. Michel is harsher on himself and his behaviour than Haakon could ever be, and despite the hard and painful moments, the love story between the two is very moving. This novel also reflects a recent historical period, one that perhaps the younger readers will not be familiar with, but many of us remember what happened when the AIDS epidemic first appeared, and the panic, paranoia, and terrible consequences it had. There was a before and an after AIDS, and it is important to remember that it hasn’t gone away.
The author’s writing reflects perfectly the events, with the right amount of description to make the places, the people, and the era come alive before our eyes, and despite how difficult some parts of the story are, there are also extremely beautiful passages and scenes that will make a strong impression in all readers.
There is nothing I didn’t like about the story. The ending is not surprising, but that is not what the book is about. Hirschi has been called “the queen of unconventional happy endings” and he lives up to that title here as well. Yes, the story’s ending is not “happy, happy” but it is a good ending, everything considered. And it is a hopeful ending as well.
As usual, I recommend readers to check a sample of the book to make sure that the writing style will suit their taste, and, I have already warned of the type of content people can find here. As you will imagine, there is also sex in the novel. Although this is neither erotica nor pornography, and there are very few explicit scenes, readers take that into account when choosing to read this story.
If you enjoy good writing, are interested in the historical period, are partial to first-love stories, and are unlikely to be disturbed by an open and honest look at the coming of age story of a young gay man growing up in a small French town in the 1980s, you should read this book. If you’ve never read one of Hans M Hirschi’s novels, you’ll discover a new author to add to your favourites, and if you’ve read The Fallen Angels of Karnataka, you are in for a special treat.
Thanks to the author for his novel, thanks to all of you for reading, liking, sharing, commenting, and don’t forget to keep safe and keep smiling.