The Bells by Richard Harvell

By Ekta R. Garg

August 10, 2011

Rated: Borrow it

In the late eighteenth century, young European boys who had beautiful singing voices suffered a horrific event: they were castrated to keep their voices young and to enhance monastic and operatic performances.  While the general public may know of this terrible injustice, not many would have intimate knowledge of what such an injustice might do to the boys who suffered it.  Richard Harvell in his debut novel The Bells (2010, published by Crown Publishing Group) provides readers with an idea of what the life of a castrate would have been like.

Protagonist Moses Froben begins his life high up in a belfry.  His mother, deaf and dumb, has taken it upon herself to ring the massive bells in the bell-tower of the church in the tiny Swiss village of Uri, high in the Alps.  Moses, born with an exceptional sense of sound, loves his mother and her passion for the bells but soon is thrown out of the village—literally—by his own father.  Almost doomed to certain death, Moses is rescued by two monks of St. Gall who give him a new life as well as his name.

The monks take Moses back to the monastery and soon the choirmaster, Ulrich, discovers Moses’ phenomenal voice.  Ulrich becomes obsessed with Moses and Moses’ talent, developing the boy’s voice and making Moses wish every single day he could get away.  The abbot despises Moses but tolerates him because of one of the abbey’s richest benefactors for the construction of the new church.  The benefactor’s daughter hears Moses sing and is convinced his singing could heal her ailing mother.  And so Moses goes to the benefactor’s house ever Thursday and sings, the only point of his week that makes him feel like singing is worthwhile.

Eventually, however, Ulrich’s obsession leads him to make the decision that will change Moses’ life forever.  After the blessing of the new church, Ulrich (with the aid of a doctor hired specifically for the purpose) has Moses castrated.  And Moses’ view of himself as a person and a singer change permanently.  But even after undergoing this utter humiliation, Moses is determined to live something of a normal life that includes the love of the benefactor’s daughter and (eventually) a career as a celebrated opera singer.

The journey from village boy to opera virtuoso is filled with every challenge imaginable and a few readers won’t expect.  Author Harvell’s prose suits the time period and the circumstances of Moses’ life, and the less appetizing portions of the book—including the castration—are handled with grace and taste.  Harvell doesn’t dress his monks in a pious, one-dimensional light.  They are people with passions and faults and misfortune, proving the layered depth of Harvell’s plot and characters.

Readers will appreciate his richness of language and story.  The only complaint I had of this book was this: the book starts with an introduction by Moses’ son, and yet we don’t hear from him again.  For the sake of uniformity, I would have liked an epilogue with the son’s closing thoughts.  This lack is an unfortunate oversight; Harvell had the chance to finish his story with one last layer.  His current conclusion doesn’t quite do the rest of his story justice.

But this small oversight aside, I found The Bells quite interesting and fascinating to read.  Anyone who enjoys period fiction will especially appreciate this book.


What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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