As administrator of the Booker Prize for the past 30 years, I am often asked whether I agreed with the judges of the year, or what I would have chosen instead as a shortlist and winner. Most years, I am happy to go along with the judges: after all, they have read all the books. But this year, I was surprised to find that Salley Vickers's Miss Garnet's Angel did not, at least, make the shortlist, for it is easily the best novel that I have read in 2000.
Harriet Josephs and Julia Garnet were two middle-aged school teachers who had lived together as friends for more than 30 years. Then Harriet dies. As a reaction to something so traumatic, although they were not lovers or anything like that, Julia Garnet decides to get away for a while and, on not much more than a whim, chooses Venice. There, she takes an appartamento, advertised in the Guardian, for six months.
The novel has three strands. The first is the total change in the character, personality and outlook of Miss Garnet, who had been an agnostic communist; and it is Venice itself, not a series of affairs or romantic encounters or suchlike that effects this transformation. This change is skilfully evolved over almost 350 pages, during which she is affected as much by the people she meets as by the buildings, canals and pictures that become part of her life.
The second strand concerns the church of Angelo Raffaele, a building near Miss Garnet's appartamento, which is being restored by two British artists whom she understands are twins. Indeed, they are of a sort - cousins born on the same day - leading to a number of dangerous assumptions in the early part of the book.
The Guardi paintings in that church lead to the third strand, which comes in the wonderfully interwoven story of Tobias and the Angel from the Apocrypha with the account of Tobit, Azarias (the Angel Raphael in disguise) and his dog Krish. It is worth adding for those as ignorant as I am that the Apocrypha antedates the Bible by many centuries. In ancient Greek, apocrypha meant hidden. In its earliest use, it was applied to writings that were withheld from public knowledge because they were vehicles of mysterious or esoteric wisdom.
The brilliance of Vickers is to knead these strands into a novel whose intricacies never once impede its extraordinary narrative power. Whether it is Miss Garnet mistakenly believing that the handsome Carlo is courting her when, in fact, he lunches and dines her - as well as taking her to the lesser-known of Venice's treasures - in order to get nearer to Nico, a very attractive Italian boy whom she is teaching English; or one of the twins disappearing from their flat and partly restored church, the reader continues to turn the pages as fast as possible.
Penelope Fitzgerald called this novel "subtle, unexpected and haunting in a way we certainly never guessed". To me, the interaction and parallels of the three strands, and the rounded way in which the author creates both leading and minor characters (a rich American couple called the Cutfords and the extraordinary Monsignore, possessed of a quality "that made the air around him more alive - a power to improve the dispositioning of those he encountered"), is carried out with a cleverness that makes it hard to believe this is a first novel.
You read, you watch Miss Garnet utterly changed in character and personality, and you marvel at how all this has been achieved, together with a depth of knowledge and projection of the story from the Apocrypha. It is also one of the best pictures of Venice I have come across. Perhaps as important as all these virtues is that one could give it as a Christmas present to a maiden aunt or intelligent teenager and both would get endless pleasure out of it.
Martyn Goff has overseen every meeting of the Booker Prize judges since 1972