Richard Harvell’s beautifully-written first novel tells the story of Moses Froben, whose mother, who is both deaf and mute, rings the bells in a church in a Swiss mountain village in the eighteenth century. The villagers think at first that Moses is also deaf and mute, but he actually has an extraordinarily acute sense of hearing. When the village priest discovers this, he throws the boy into the river so he won’t reveal the priest’s secret: that he is Moses’ father, and that he raped Moses’ mother. Two monks, Nicolai and Remus, rescue Moses from the river and bring him to their abbey, where he joins the choir and becomes its best singer. The choirmaster has Moses castrated to preserve his voice, but makes him keep his castration a secret. Then Moses falls in love with Amalia, the daughter of a wealthy family, when he’s asked to sing for her ailing mother. Ashamed of his secret, he blindfolds her whenever they meet, so she knows only the sound of his voice. Eventually, Moses’ friends, who have discovered his secret, are exiled from the abbey and Amalia is forced into an arranged marriage and leaves for Vienna. Moses escapes and looks for her in Vienna, where he meets up with another castrato, a famous opera singer, who is about to sing the world premiere of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, an opera which is still well-known today. The singer offers to teach Moses to become an opera singer as well, but treats him more as a servant. Will Moses find Amalia again, and have a career in opera?
The Bells contains some of the most vivid descriptions of sounds that I have ever seen in a novel. It is a wonderful story of a man who must accept the fact of who he is, experiencing great love, heartbreak, and cruelty from those who mistreat him. There are parallels with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and a few fantasy elements, but above all, this is a finely-written historical novel, one which will linger in your mind for a long time after you finish.
The Bells is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.