Wednesday, January 26, 2011

REVIEW: The Bells, by Richard Harvell

The Bells, by Richard Harvell. Published 2010 by Random House. Literary Fiction.

The one word that would sum up The Bells for me would be uneven. Set in Europe of the late 1700s, it's the story of a young man named Moses Froben, so named by a pair of monks who find him floating in the river. His origins are obscure; the son of an outcast woman who rings bells in a Swiss town, he's been raised almost in the wild. Then monks Nicolai and Remus find him, take him to their abbey and raise him to be a singer- and he is phenomenally talented, so much so that his music teacher has him castrated at age 10 in order to preserve his angelic voice.

Moses grows up, falls in love, and eventually leaves the abbey; the novel opens with a letter from Moses's son, also called Nicolai, so we know that Moses will become a famous singer one day and that he will have a child, although how a castrated man comes to be a parent is only part of the story the book tells.

What made The Bells for me was the characters and the historical detail. From the little I know about castrati, Harvell seems to stick to historical reality in the way he portrays Moses, and he paints a rich picture of the abbeys and the cultural life of Vienna. These parts of the book were my favorites, along with the characters. I loved Amalia, the girl Moses loves. Nicolai and Remus are a great couple and loving parental figures to Moses. I felt like the first third of the book, detailing Moses's life with his mother, was the weakest, not least because of the angry, bitter tone that Moses takes. And I just didn't find that part very interesting. I was also disappointed in the endings given to some of the characters, especially Amalia, who deserves better. Finally, I found myself somewhat unsympathetic to Moses's actions surrounding the acquisition of his son. I know it's supposed to be romantic but it didn't strike me that way.

On balance I'd say I liked The Bells but couldn't quite love it. I think readers of historical fiction will enjoy the book, especially fans of Sarah Dunant, whose book Sacred Hearts I thought of often while reading this one. It's well-researched and beautifully written; my problems with the book had to do with some specific turns of plot that I found implausible. But it's a solid debut with a lot to offer to lots of readers.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.