Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Bells by Richard Harvell

I've been interested in the history of castrato singers ever since reading Anne Rice's Cry to Heaven when I was a senior in high school. I don't remember the details of that novel all too well, but I remember being horrified and entranced all at the same time by the lives of castrati. I was immediately drawn to Richard Harvell's debut novel, The Bells, after hearing an interview with him on NPR's The Diane Rehm show as he talked not only about this amazing book that takes us into the life of a castrate, but also about the history of castrati and the social and physical challenges that they faced...all of which he captures perfectly in this novel. The book opens, not with a castrated boy, but with a deaf woman in a small town in Switzerland in the 18th century. This small town wants to prove that they are the most Catholic of Catholics, so they melt all of their iron and cast it into the largest bells known to man. Only they are so loud that no one can stand the sound of them, let alone be near enough to ring them. But this deaf woman not only can be near the bells and ring them, but falls in love with them. Falls in love with the feeling of the vibrations as they coarse through her body. And she makes a home on top of the church in the belfry. And it is there that she gives birth to a boy. A boy that the town assumes is also deaf as he lives beneath the bells. But someone fathered this child, and when the secret is found that he is not silent, he's tossed from the town, quite literally to keep the secret of his birth. It is two kind monks, Nicolai and Remus that find the young boy and name him Moses. Nicolai is a giant with a heart of gold who's mind wanders from the monastery and Remus is his lifelong friend who always has his nose buried in a book. They bring him back to the monastery where he is at first not welcomed until his voice is heard...his singing voice...and then everything changes. With Moses' voice he is brought into the choir and through the choir, he makes his first friend, a young girl Amalia who will steal his heart. But Moses is soon to learn that boys with angelic voices have something that can be a curse during this age as well. And what soon happens changes so many aspects of his life. I can't begin to describe my love for this novel. The letter is written as a giant letter from Moses to his son, so a mystery is set out for us from the beginning. Biology tells us that someone who is castrated cannot bear children. So the novel opens with Nicolai (Moses' son) telling us that he has discovered the following novel telling him of his namesake and who his father is. And then it just grips you even more. The story is a constant whirlwind of emotion. The first chapter had me actually giggling aloud and then that disappeared for the rest of the book. The rest of the book is a thing of beauty, sadness, mystery, intrigue, horror, and fascination. There were scenes when I literally cringed. Scenes when I held my breath and could not turn the pages fast enough, scenes that I simply did not want to end. More than anything, this book is just filled with beauty. Beauty in it's every form. The pictures that Harvell creates in the mind are just incredible. I've never heard a castrato sing. Well..I take that back. I heard a really bad recording of the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, singing Ave Maria during his interview with Diane Rehm. But what I heard in my mind while reading The Bells was just pure beauty. Music is obviously a huge part of this novel and the book itself is almost one big song. One big opera. Without giving much away, the book comes to a climax with Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and my god...the scene is just written so brilliantly! I had to actually go download the opera after finishing the book to hear this music for myself. The scene just took my breath away. The characters..oh the characters. Every one of them flawed, but flawed so perfectly. From the gentle but noble monk, Nicolai that I just loved so much that reminded me so much of Hagrid (sorry I can't help it!!) to Remus, his wonderfully bookish friend who was never found without a book in his hands. And Moses himself was just such an incredible character. The challenges he faced made me ache for him so much, but the beauty that he has is just incredible. And Amalia...amazing. And Moses AND Amalia...oh those scenes!! The blindfolded love scenes! Gah!! I need someone to talk to about this book. Is it obvious that I loved this book? If it's not, let me shout it to the rafters: I LOVED THIS BOOK!!!! Now I just need Harvell to get his next one on the shelves ;)

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