"Angelica" further explores the novelistic use of unreliable narrators. The book is a game-playing inquiry into the role of memory and the nature of narrative, disguised as soft porn. Life and literature both depend on plausibility, or at least some kind of linkage or coherence. But for every seemingly true life story, whether told to a friend or psychiatrist or offered by a novelist to a reader, there are at least dozens of equally plausible variations -- even contradictory versions -- of the same experience.

Phillips sets his story in a dark, overstuffed house in Victorian London, where a disturbed and disturbing couple with a 4-year-old daughter become trapped in an erotic and sinister family romance. We hear four incompatible versions of a story concerning ghosts, demons, rape, incest, madness and murder: from Constance; her much older husband, Joseph; Anne Montague, a medium, and Angelica, the daughter. But the opening sentence makes it clear there is only one narrator and you'll guess, long before Phillips makes it explicit, that Angelica does all the talking, and that she can't possibly "remember" the scenes and conversations she details, most of which she didn't witness.

After her third and only successful pregnancy, Constance is warned by her doctors that another one would kill her. Wanting sex, but now terrified of it, she keeps Angelica's crib by the marital bed, where her husband can hardly contain his desires. When the girl is 4, he banishes her to a room of her own. And now Constance goes gradually mad, or is it instead that she has reason to fear Joseph, whose lust may now be directed at Angelica? Flashbacks reveal that Constance was repeatedly molested by her own father. In her nightmares, Constance now sees a demon who often wears Joseph's face. When she wakes and rushes into her daughter's room, she sees the ghastly fiend floating over Angelica's bed.

At her maid Nora's suggestion, she hires Montague, who, not coincidentally, used to be an actress. Anne alternately soothes her and inflames her horrible suspicions. Is she a brazen manipulator, or does she have some real sympathy for a sweet, disintegrating woman? She gives Constance rituals, spells and magic objects, one of them a bone-handled knife.

The plot, already quite thick with shuddering innuendo -- the word "unspeakable" comes up a lot -- now becomes a clotted, unstirrable concoction. What "really" happens? Is Nora in cahoots with Anne? Does Joseph succeed in sending Constance to the nuthouse? What happens to Joseph? Was someone murdered in that house? Is any one of the four versions of this story true or partially true, or is Angelica a pure fabulist, telling her listeners what they want to hear?

Phillips' story implodes under the force of proliferating options, clever mind games, Shakespearean allusions and animal symbolism. And his style mimics the heavy-breathing plot, reading as a pastiche of Victorian literary mannerisms: "Angelica had been choking, just then, precisely then, choking as Constance had been, the girl's terror palpable even before Constance had opened the door."

And yet, despite these caveats, and the theatrical melodrama of suppressed lust beneath starched clothes, that wily trickster Phillips almost seduced me. Oh, I'm not responsible for this over-the-top language, he winks; that's Angelica talking. She is his sexy surrogate novelist, writing her tale, "prescribed busywork" for a doctor, presumably her psychiatrist. She teases him: "I scarcely expect to frighten you of all people, even if you should read this by snickering [no, not "flickering"] candle and creaking floorboards. Or with me lying at your feet."

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