The interplay between mysticism and religion has always been near the heart of Ireland’s romance. Fairies, spirits and Catholic symbolism add to an old-world beauty that allows outsiders to speak eloquently about the Emerald Isle. But in Immaculate Heart, Camille DeAngelis explores both darkness and redemption in a gauzy relationship with reality, myth and faith.
An unnamed New York reporter travels to his grandmother’s hometown of Ballymorris for a funeral, marking his first trip to Ireland since he was 12. Though it has been 25 years since he was last in town, most of the villagers remember him clearly, including the three girls he and his sister spent time with at the nearby beach. The reporter learns that those girls saw the Virgin Mary a few years after his childhood visit, and he decides to investigate what happened. But the more he learns, the more disturbing the story becomes.
Haunted by guilt about his sister’s death, the reporter’s initial objectivity gives way to a more personal desperation as he seeks answers to his lingering questions. Those who saw the apparition—the girls and their friend, long-time Sydney resident Declan—have all been estranged. Tess, who shared a kiss with the reporter during his last visit, has become a nun. Orla refuses to admit she actually saw the apparition, insisting she had to protect her little sister. Sile, the youngest, has been in a mental facility for several years. The reporter speaks to each woman multiple times to comprehend what took place, but the truth becomes murkier with every retelling.
A few recurring themes skitter along the novel’s surface, but only one resolves in a satisfying and jarring way. The sense that Tess has a secret beyond the apparition adds complexity to her otherwise honest character, but it fizzles out before it can provide any closure. Likewise, the fate of Sile is muddled to the point of complete confusion. The reporter’s treatment of his sister, which lurks in the back of his mind, is addressed in the final pages; it is a disturbing twist that, in some ways, makes up for the otherwise lackluster finale.
Though she writes beautifully, DeAngelis stretches out the tension to the point of breaking. The drama lies in subtleties—shared glances between friends, changes in tone, the angst of discussing buried memories—and the stakes don’t always clearly appear. Even when the stories of the apparition begin twisting, taking a crueler turn away from the loving image of the Virgin Mary, danger never quite manifests.
It’s through a heavy-handed story Tess tells the reporter that DeAngelis appears to tip her hand. The tale is about a baby taken by fairies and the discomfort experienced by his mother when he returns as a grown man. At the end of the story, the reporter expresses his surprise that nothing bad really happened. Tess explains that the slow-burn tension is why it’s one of her favorite narratives.
DeAngelis seems to be working toward that same sense of unease in Immaculate Heart. While she succeeds in establishing that sensation of something lurking just beyond the next page, it’s a risky approach for a 300-page novel. In this case, the anticipation crystallizes into disappointment.