Richard Harvell’s first novel, "The Bells," offers lessons on the experience of music, the appeal of opera and the human cost of art. [He] has written an entertaining and eye-opening aria of a book.
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—The Washington Post
"Richard Harvell’s first novel is a marvel of sound woven through the tale of an extraordinary life."
—Fredericksburg Freelance Star
"THE BELLS does for the ears what Perfume did for the nose. A novel to engage the senses as well as tickle the mind."
—Sarah Dunant, international bestselling author of Sacred Hearts
Harvell’s debut novel is saturated with sound—and not just the clash of bells—for young protagonist Moses has preternatural hearing that opens the world to him in a way that it isn’t to others. The result is a striking "revisualization" of events in terms of the whoosh and clatter of humans and nature (e.g., "Lovemaking is like singing"). Born to a deaf mother confined to a bell tower in 1700s Switzerland by her cruel paramour, the village priest, Moses is literally thrown into the world and rescued by two odd monks returning to the Abbey of St. Gall. There he discovers his voice (he hasn’t really spoken until then), and his voice—that is, his extraordinary gift for singing—is likewise discovered, and leads to his placement in the boys’ choir. Soon he’s asked to visit the wealthy Duft household, where he sings for the dying mother of Amalia, whom he comes to love. Alas, the creepy choirmaster wants to preserve that beautiful voice forever and has Moses secretly castrated. What follows is wrenching and painfully triumphant as Moses comes to understand what has happened to him and seeks out Amalia—Eurydice to his Orpheus, as played out in Gluck’s opera, a touchstone here. Verdict A poignant and acutely told story of the human spirit; highly recommended.
—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
A young man endures hardship, abuse and mutilation on the path to musical glory in 18th- century Vienna. When we first meet Moses, the hero and narrator of Harvell’s debut, he’s growing up in degraded circumstances in the Swiss Alps. His mother is a deaf-mute who is taken advantage of by a local priest, banishing both mother and child to the church belfry in the name of secrecy. She takes her revenge by aggressively pounding the church’s massive bells loudly enough to blast the eardrums of all who approach—except Moses, who has a preternatural musical talent. Cast out by the priest, Moses is soon discovered by two monks, Nicolai and Remus, who exchange Abbott and Costello–style banter as they take the boy under their wing. Moses’ singing ability keeps him from being sent to an orphanage, but the abbey is full of its own humiliations: He’s ostracized by his fellow choirboys, the sons of wealthy men who are financing a massive church construction; Nicolai and Remus are expelled under accusations of homosexuality; and as Moses nears puberty he’s castrated in the hopes of making him a musico. The sole bright spot in his life is Amalia, a young woman seduced by his singing and eager to escape the clutches of her controlling aunt. Harvell’s storytelling is fast-paced and deliberately melodramatic, as the plot threads converge on Vienna, where the debut of Gluck’s Orfeo serves as the novel’s climax. Like Orfeo, the plot of this novel is built on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, though Harvell gives his story a few contemporary twists. Nicolai and Remus provide an opportunity to comment on the struggles of homosexuals at the time, both inside and outside the church; Amalia reveals a proto-feminist eagerness to stop living under the thumb of parents or a husband; and in rounding out this motley crew, Moses himself undercuts the era’s conservative notions of faith and masculinity. Harvell doesn’t press those points, but they do add gravitas to his likable historical page-turner. An entertaining coming-of-age tale that earns its operatic tone.
"Astonishing in its originality, epic in its scope, luminous in its richness, The Bells is a novel to be savored page by glorious page."
—Cathy Marie Buchanan, New York Times bestselling author of The Day the Falls Stood Still
"I was mesmerized from first page to the last by this haunting and seductive novel. Long after I finished, the characters and their heartbreaking tale of love, loss, and obsession resonated with me still. Readers, here is a book you’ll find impossible to resist. Bravo and encore!"
—M.J. Rose, international bestselling author of The Reincarnationist
Harvell, Richard (Author)
Sep 2010. 384 p. Crown/Shaye Areheart, hardcover, $24.00. (9780307590527).
Born in a belfry in the Uri Valley of the Swiss Alps, where his deaf-mute mother rang the Loudest Bells on Earth, Moses Froben possesses both a remarkably sensitive ear and an exquisite singing voice, enabling him to overcome his humble origins to become Lo Suizzero, the musical toast of Europe in the eighteenth century. In papers left for the son he raised but did not sire, Froben recounts being rescued from his father’s murderous plan by monks Nicolai and Remus and taken to their abbey, where the choirmaster recognizes the boy’s gift and goes to inhumane lengths to preserve it. In the neighboring town, Moses meets Amalia Duft, daughter of the area’s wealthiest man, whose love becomes a beacon for his life even after his castration. Despite an opening note that reveals part of the story, Harvell builds suspense as Moses struggles against the superior forces of the noble family Amalia is forced by duplicity to marry into, reaching a bittersweet conclusion. Taking few liberties with history, Harvell has fashioned an engrossing first novel ringing with sounds; a musical and literary treat.
Richard Harvell, Shaye Areheart, 2010, $24.00, hb, 384pp, 9780307590527
When I look at my copy of The Bells sitting in front of me, I cannot believe it lies there immobile and lifeless. The sounds and music within its pages should make the book throb and vibrate across the table. During the time I spent entranced with this story, my body rang like the bells within its pages. The Bells is a fictional autobiography, a letter written by a castrati father to his son, explaining how their relationship came to be. Moses Froben is born in a remote Swiss village to a deaf-mute woman who finds her one great pleasure (apart from her love for her son) in the vibrations she feels ringing the massive bells in her village’s church. These bells are so loud that the villagers clamp their hands to their ears, but the sound has a different effect on Moses, giving him an almost magical ability to hear and dissect sounds, near and far. When the village priest (his father) discovers that Moses is not deaf like his mother, the man attempts to drown Moses in a river. Moses is rescued by traveling monks, Nicolai and Remus, and taken to the monastery at St. Gall. Here his angelic voice is discovered by the choir master and preserved for all time by a horrible act of castration. Surprisingly, The Bells is a love story, for Moses falls in love with a woman who is forbidden to him. The Bells is also a mystery – for how can Moses, a castrati, a musico, be the father of the recipient of this novel-length letter? Finally, The Bells is music. Harvell’s magical prose gives sound to Moses’ life: the bells, the arias, and the uneven breath of true love.
— Historical Novels Review
"It’s my favorite novel of the last couple of years."
— Michael Kindness, Books on the Nightstand
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