The Bells by Richard Harvell / ★★★★1/2
Summary: A child of misfortune, Moses Froben is born with an extraordinary sense of hearing and a remarkable gift of singing, so remarkable that he finds himself on the path to becoming one of Europe’s most celebrated opera singers- but at an atrocious cost.
This was a singer, remember, who practiced with an open window, so any man or woman passing on the street would have the chance to hear an angel sing.
Genre: Historical Fiction
*This book contains abuse towards a child, some of which takes on a sexual nature.
Okay: I loved this book, but parts of it horrified the heck out of me. Terrible things happen to a child in this book. I’m not going to spoil anything, but I’m going to mention the plot in more detail, which surrounds an actual practice that took place in history, so if you’d rather just…not, then proceed no further.
Set in 18th century Switzerland and then Austria, The Bells revealed an aspect of history in musical performance I had never heard of. It brings to light the account of a musico, or a castrato: a boy who was castrated before he reached puberty with the purpose of preserving his boyhood singing voice so that he could, for the rest of his life, sing within that range, but with the power of a man-sized lungs. It’s something that became outlawed and is no longer practiced today, but goes back centuries.
You guys, this whole concept positively horrified me. I may be in possession of a history degree, but I’ve never put much thought into history’s eunuchs, or what it means to be castrated as a young boy. But at the same time this was a compelling, extremely heartfelt story, and especially highlights what I love about historical fiction- it tells the story of someone who experienced something in the past I might have never known about otherwise. I suppose this book highlights what I love about books in general- that feeling of connecting to a story I, personally, will never have.
And as much as this book was horrifying and painful, it was heartwarming and funny at times; it told such an incredible story of love. The plot follows the early period of Moses’s life, and it’s a slow-moving book, but by the time I finished it I definitely felt like I’d gone on a journey.
While this book is brutal and horrific at times, it does have a certain aspect of…whimsy, I suppose, that pervades it, but which I found to be much stronger at the end of the novel than the first two thirds of the book, and it set the balance off for me. I found the last part of The Bells to be a bit fantastical and a little too coincidental, particularly pertaining to the romantic plotline. Had this book maintained a more sober tone in the end, I think I would have walked away feeling a bit more satisfied with its ending. I feel for this reason I should give this book four stars, but…my overall experience with it was too great to dock it a full star.
I really, really enjoyed this book. I bought it because I saw its ebook version was on sale for $1.99 and I was in the mood for something historical and “kind of dark” that might “shake me up” and WOW, I got way more than I bargained for. No complaints about that.
I’m not even sure what my expectations for this book were, but I did not expect to come away loving the characters as much as I did. Moses was a fantastic narrator and such an amazing, lovable character. If I had to make a “top characters who made my heart ache because of the injustice committed towards them” list, he’d be on it ASAP. His two monk friends, the exuberant Nikolai and staunch Remus, were another pair of incredibly lovable characters, a great source of humor, and, again, represent so much of the injustice that takes place in this book.
That said, there are, obviously, characters so terrible they made me want to yank my hair out. Terrible, cruel, and so creepy I hated it sometimes.
I have never read a book that describes sound such as this one. It was beautifully and vividly written, so much so that I felt like I could hear the music and feel the vibrations through the words on the page. It literally made me want to sing, just so I could experience the sensations for myself. Never in my life have I been interested in opera, but I found myself searching YouTube for the opera performed in this book so I could feel it like the characters did. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing style of this book, it was so smooth and fluid, and while beautifully descriptive, I never found it to be overly descriptive- the descriptions were very much vital to the storytelling, to the plot and characters themselves.
Was I satisfied?
This book was such an experience. It horrified me, it disturbed me and it made me squirm, but at the same time it was extremely compelling and told such a heartfelt, love-filled story. I did get a bit drawn out by the fantasticalness of the ending, but I really, really enjoyed this book and it definitely satisfied my craving for some perturbing historical fiction. I love learning about parts of history I don’t know. Best $2 I’ve spent on an ebook.