Title: The Bells
Author: Richard Harvell
Narrator: Paul Michael Garcia
Length of Audio: 15 hours, 50 minutes
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “The celebrated opera singer Lo Svizzero was born in a belfry high in the Swiss Alps where his mother served as the keeper of the loudest and most beautiful bells in the land. Shaped by the bells’ glorious music, as a boy he possessed an extraordinary gift for sound. But when his preternatural hearing was discovered—along with its power to expose the sins of the church—young Moses Froben was cast out of his village with only his ears to guide him in a world fraught with danger.
Rescued from certain death by two traveling monks, he finds refuge at the vast and powerful Abbey of St. Gall. There, his ears lead him through the ancient stone hallways and past the monks’ cells into the choir, where he aches to join the singers in their strange and enchanting song. Suddenly Moses knows his true gift, his purpose. Like his mother’s bells, he rings with sound and soon, he becomes the protégé of the Abbey’s brilliant yet repulsive choirmaster, Ulrich.
But it is this gift that will cause Moses’ greatest misfortune: determined to preserve his brilliant pupil’s voice, Ulrich has Moses castrated. Now a young man, he will forever sing with the exquisite voice of an angel—a musico—yet castration is an abomination in the Swiss Confederation, and so he must hide his shameful condition from his friends and even from the girl he has come to love. When his saviors are exiled and his beloved leaves St. Gall for an arranged marriage in Vienna, he decides he can deny the truth no longer and he follows her—to sumptuous Vienna, to the former monks who saved his life, to an apprenticeship at one of Europe’s greatest theaters, and to the premiere of one of history’s most beloved operas.
In this confessional letter to his son, Moses recounts how his gift for sound led him on an astonishing journey to Europe’s celebrated opera houses and reveals the secret that has long shadowed his fame: How did Moses Froben, world renowned musico, come to raise a son who by all rights he never could have sired?”
Thoughts: The Bells is one of those novels that starts out slowly, leaving the reader confused and uncertain about whether to continue, but soon builds to the point where the reader finds himself or herself obsessed with Moses’ story. One quickly forgets that the narrator is really Moses’ son reading a letter from Moses and becomes immersed in Moses’ plight, from his heart-wrenching beginnings to a thrilling climactic rescue mission. It is enough to leave the reader breathless.
This is one novel where reading it does not do Mr. Harvell’s words justice. So much of the novel revolves around music, that one truly needs to experience the songs mentioned to get the scope of Moses’ story. Just how high is he talking about when he talks about singing as a soprano? What song moves Moses to tears? Paul Michael Garcia actually sings while narrating. While he is no musico, his voice does provide the reader with a better understanding of what is being discussed in the novel and greater insight into Moses. It becomes a truly auditory experience that enhances one’s enjoyment of the story.
So much of The Bells is spent discussing Moses’ castration. The castration scene itself ranks up there among one of the most horrifying and sad scenes in literature, but it is how others treat Moses once his secret becomes known that really piques the reader’s interest. I became so interested in the Castrati that I ended up doing my own Google search to find out more of what their life was like. What I found left me cringing and slightly sick to my stomach. This article by Tony Perrottet not only explained some of the more mysterious, and hinted-at points of the novel and also provides an audio of one of the last Castrato. It is haunting, disturbing, and makes Moses that much more real and sympathetic.
The Bells is not for everyone. It moves slowly at times, as Moses meanders his way to his point. Mr. Harvell’s portrayal of the Church highlights its hypocrisy, and his descriptions of a musico’s life, however accurate, are so unusual that it does take a strong leap of faith by the reader to overcome all stereotypes and preconceptions. Yet, if the reader takes the time to sit back and let the words swirl around one, The Bells plays out like a beautiful symphony, perfectly timed and so expressive it moves one to tears. It transcends any particular label and forces the reader to reconsider the true meaning of love. In a word, The Bells is simply stunning and worth the effort required to get into this unusual novel.