Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Bells.
In 18th-century Switzerland, Moses Froben's deaf mother chimes the loudest bells upon the earth as she sits perched on the edge of the world in an isolated belfry high atop the Swiss Alps. Although this woman will never speak, she clearly loves Moses even when this love is not enough to save him from the evil clutches of his father, who sees him as a "devil child." Thrown off a bridge into the roaring waters of the river Ruess, Moses is rescued by two kindly monks: the gentle giant
Nicolai and the wolf Remus.
Journeying with them to their home in the Abbey St. Gall, under the auspices of the revered Abbott Staudach Moses has an opportunity to become a novice even as he understands he’s merely an orphan child. In the Abbott's eyes, Moses is superfluous, just “a common stain that must be wiped away.” Confined to Nicolas’s cell, Moses watches in awe as Staudach’s new perfect church rises, the building a powerful symbol for the Abbott's fervent and puritanical grasp on the surrounding landscape.
Moses' days are made more bearable when he hears the flashes of random harmony coming from the boys of the choir of St. Gall. Entranced by the crystallized sound of their voices, Moses too chooses to sing. At first his notes are soft and unsure, but as he steadily gains in confidence, his natural gift spreads outward, the sound soon resembling a bell’s giant ring.
Ulrich, St. Gall's chief choirmaster, is captivated by the boy, but Moses
must endure the taunts, cold eyes and snickers of the other choirboys: “you may sing with us if you can, but you are not one of us. ” Eventually becoming Staudach’s most prized possession, Moses is asked to sing for the dying wife of wealthy Willibald Duft.
Singing quietly by the sick woman's bedside, Moses first meets the limping snake-kisser Amalia Duft.
She sits pensive and enthralled, her very fiber ruled by Moses' enchanting voice. Moses in turn becomes deeply enamored of the girl who is to champion his talent.
Harvell posits Moses’ growing affection for Amalia as precisely as he details his protagonist’s struggles to climb the ladder of song. Composed of vital landscapes of sound, Moses’ singing reaches out like an extended finger, his talent renowned far and wide.
He is, however, forced to pay a terrible price for his gift. Harvell describes in detail the scene of Moses' castration - Ulrich's wet strokes between his legs, then a hand tearing, testing and digging inside him. In the aftermath, Moses' voice is still fine and brilliant, but with the sudden lack of those "two tiny bells ringing between his legs," Moses is no longer considered to be a man.
Where the love of a beautiful voice is most often a curse, there is much to learn about these beautiful, damaged men who were once admired for their angelic singing but also taunted unmercifully for their condition. Forced into her own exile, Amalia ultimately calls Moses to the great city of Vienna
and its rectangular palaces and flower-filled courtyards. Moses frenetically searches for his one true love, not expecting that the great fellow castrati Gaetano Guadagni will transform his life as he could never have imagined.
With rich period detail, Harvell captures Moses’ tumultuous journey and the restrictions placed on such boys by a religion that
forces them to walk a harsh geography of exile far from the people they love. Like a walking ghost, Moses endures much violence and cruelty as he tries desperately reconnect with Amalia, if only for a time. Moses' memories of the bells are the constant force in an existence framed
by childhood dreams, the perpetual sound of bells, and Amalia’s sighs of pleasure as they appear like a ghostly light, preserved for all eternity in Moses' love of sound.