Monday, January 16, 2012

The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip

The Bell at Sealey Head
by Patricia A. McKillip
Ace Books, 2008
277 pages

The odd thing about people who had many books was how they always wanted more. Judd knew that about himself: just the sight of Ridley Dow's books unpacked and stacked in corners, on the desk and dresser, made him discontented and greedy. Here he was; there they were. Why were he and they not together somewhere private, they falling gently open under his fingers, he exploring their mysteries, they luring him, enthralling him, captivating him with every turn of phrase, every revealing page?

A short time ago, Aarti discussed the practice of "skimming" through books for one of her Sunday Salon posts. I do skim, several different ways and for several different reasons, but one of the bad skimming habits I have is when I'm so caught up in a book I have been known to skim through sections to get to the end so I can see what happens faster. This is probably just fine, as long as I re-read the book in question a second time to catch everything I missed. In some cases, I skim so badly I can't even remember what the book is about, through no fault of the book's. Such was the case with The Bell at Sealey Head.

I have such a hard time reviewing these books. I can't be objective, I can barely be intelligent; these books don't lend themselves to my kinds of reviews because they are complex and different and nuanced and beautiful and hard to talk about without feeling either trite or completely inadequate. I think I have mentioned my love for Patricia McKillip's writing before. Multiple times. So I probably don't need to spend a lot of time expostulating here. I had thought, as I was reviewing The Bards of Bone Plain, that perhaps I didn't remember The Bell at Sealey Head because it wasn't as good. This was an incorrect hypothesis. The book is excellent, but I must have read it so fast that none of it stuck. Embarrassing.

Here we have a book that explores some favourite themes of McKillip's: books and stories and storytelling and the power they hold, the lust for power and how destructive it can be, the lure of the sea, the lovely things to be found in the life of the everyday folk who often get passed over in fantasy stories, the passage of time, the parallel worlds that are sometimes accessible and sometimes not. Set in the small harbour town of Sealey Head, at its heart this book is a mystery as much as it is a fantasy: what and where is the bell that rings every sundown in the town, and what is happening at Aislinn House, the grand old manor on the hill?

The story is told from the perspectives of Judd Cauley, the innkeeper; Gwyneth Blair, the merchant's daughter, and Emma Wood, a young maid at Aislinn House, as well as Ysabo, a princess trapped in ritual in the magical other Aislinn House. Each has their own private worries and dreams, and each play a role in the solving of the mystery, though the actual solving of the whole is left to Ridley Dow, a mysterious travelling scholar who comes to stay at Judd's inn.

As in any old mystery there are clues left about the narratives for the reader to pick up, and as I read I started to remember a few things, so I started looking a little harder at details and discovered that they did, indeed, point me in the right direction once I knew what to look for.

The pace is slow, the effect cumulative, and the payoff is satisfying. I was left at the end of the book feeling rather bereft; what could I possibly read next that wasn't going to pale in comparison? (The answer to that: go a completely different direction. It worked.) In fact, I think The Bell at Sealey Head is actually one of McKillip's more straightforward books, and might be a good place for a person who has never read her work to start.

10 comments:

Aarti said...

I skim like that, too! I admit I was actually really surprised by the very strong negative reactions some commenters had to skimming on that post- as though they think it's cheating in some way. Which I understand, but sometimes I want to get to the end SO BADLY that I just need to read faster and get there. I'm glad you do that, too! And I'm glad you do it for Patricia McKillip because I think I have three of her books sitting patiently on my shelf, unread.

kiirstin said...

I figure there are many different ways to read; who is one cheating if one is skimming? As long as I get what I am looking for out of a book, I don't think I'm hurting anything to skim. And sometimes reading these books I've skimmed so quickly a second time is a real treat. Skimming through it the first time adds something to the experience the second time around.

Darla D said...

I love Patricia McKillip's books! And I know JUST what you mean about the skimming - which is so bad with her books because the language is so lovely and evocative - but yes, you want to know what's going to happen! I solve this little conundrum by rereading, as you suggest. And after reading your review, I realize it's been way too long since I read one of her books. And I don't think I've ever even read this one...

kiirstin said...

It was completely under my radar too, I can't remember how I heard about it but I think it was just before it was released. A day where I learn about a new McKillip book is a good day! I think you'll like this one. It's relatively recent so it shouldn't be too hard to find.

Nymeth said...

What you say about her themes really appeals to me. I've been meaning to read her for years (in part because of you) - hopefully this year will be the year.

kiirstin said...

So many books, so little time! I do hope I haven't raised expectations *too* high...

Paul Deane said...

Nice review. Would you mind if I quoted a few sentences from it in a website I'm working on? I'll attribute it to you and link back to this page.

Thanks!

kiirstin said...

Hi Paul, I don't mind at all. Thanks for asking! If you have a moment, drop back in and post the website link when you're done. :)

Bookwyrme said...

Ooh, how'd I miss a McKillip review? She's so absolutely one of my favorite authors! I usually have to read her books three or four times to really start seeing what's going on, though.

That said, Bell at Sealy Head hasn't become one of my favorites. It's gorgeous, but I can't quite get over the way Gwyneth's story and the actual story of the bell have no relation to one another. Usually, McKillip's books dovetail things so nicely!

And, yes, I totally do that skimming thing, too. I get completely caught up on a book and I want to know whathappensnextrightnow and the next thing, I know what, but now how. I call it reading in layers: Skim so I can go to bed, then really read it later!

kiirstin said...

I agree, it was weird how Gwyneth's story and the actual tale never met, and it always seemed kind of odd to me. I can't think of another of her books that I've read where the story-within-a-story was so divorced from the main plot.

I love the idea of reading in layers! Lately I have taken to just reading nonfiction (and NOT narrative nonfiction) in bed so that I don't end up either skimming like crazy or up until 2am, or both...