Review: The Bells

This one has been on the “to read” for such a long time! I was glad to be in a situation where a digital book was not appropriate so that I could finally get to it! It did not disappoint. It truly was a novel to “engage the senses and tickle the mind.”

I grew up as the son of a man who could not possibly have been my father. Though there was never any doubt that my seed had come from another man, Moses Froben, Lo Svizzero, called me “son.” And I called him “father.” On the rare occasions when someone dared to ask for clarification, he simply laughed as though the questioner were obtuse. “Of course he’s not my son!” he would say. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Nicolai Froben’s father, Moses, has recently died and has left behind a memoir. It tells how a nameless, bastard child of a deaf-mute mother and a wicked priest became one of the most beloved Opera singers of the 1700s.

Moses is one of those characters that you cheer for from the very beginning! He is vulnerable and naive and manages to stumble into all of the right kind of misfits and all of the wrong kinds of villains. His humble life begins in the belfry of a church tower high in the Swiss Alps. He lives silently with his mother who is in charge of ringing the bells– considered to be the Loudest Bells on Earth. The towns people assume that he is also deaf– how could his ears NOT be damaged living with bells so loud?  The truth is the bells have enhanced his hearing and Moses actually hears EVERYTHING– even things that he should not. And when the pervy priest, Karl Victor, realizes that he has heard more than he thought he did he tries to dispose of him by tossing him into a raging river.

As luck would have it he is rescued by a pair of travelling monks, Nicolai and Remus, who bring him back to their monastery to live with them. The staunch Abbott immediately denies Moses entry until the singing begins. It is in the Abbey of St. Gall that Moses discovers that he is blessed with the most angelic of all voices. He becomes a choir boy and a town favourite, the church has never been fuller! The local millionaire hires him to sing for his dying wife– his voice is the only thing that eases her pain. He is frequently summoned to Haus Duft and it is here he meets Amelia, his real life Eurydice!

Things do not go easy for Moses growing up in the Abbey. The other choir boys dislike him because of the attention he receives and his choir master, Ulrich, cannot listen enough, often waking him in the middle of the night to practice. This goes on for years and as Moses grows up puberty threatens to change things. A plot is hatched to turn him into a “true angel” and preserve that voice forever. Ulrich secretly has him castrated and when Nicolai finds out he goes crazy! He burns the teacher alive and is banished from the Abbey. Moses and Remus are ready to take him and leave but how can the Abbott let his prize singer go? What if someone finds out that a castration took place in HIS own church? It would cause a scandal! He “convinces” Moses to stay by threatening to imprison Nicolai if he leaves and convinces him that the outside world is no place for a eunuch. Remus leaves with Nicolai and Moses is left at the abbey to sing in isolation. He still has Amelia to comfort him but eventually she is forced to leave as well– her evil aunt has her married off to some wealthy man in Vieanna who she does not love. Moses swears that they will all be reunited one day. Will it ever happen? Can a musico find true love? How does he have a son? Read The Bells and find out!

The descriptions of sound in this book were just extraordinary and so detailed– you could hear the music, the echos off the walls of Haus Duft, the empty silence of the Abbey, the rushing water of the rivers and the culminating mourning scene from the Opera Orpheus. 3.5 stars for me– almost a 4 but I thought it ended a bit too abruptly.

(There are a lot of references and parallels to the story of Orpheus in this one– so I had the David Sylvian song Orpheus in my head the entire time reading– what a treat! Have a listen here because it is WONDERFULLY haunting.)

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