I made good on my vow to devour the latest Celine Kiernan novel, dear readers. It is entitled Resonance. It is… well. It’s fair to say that it’s somewhat beyond description. It’s like all the best bits from a variety of genres, mashed up together into a seamless whole, which has left me utterly bereft at its passing.
Oh, and also, it has left me in search of a new career, for I will never write anything half as good as this book. I have, officially, given up the mantle of ‘writer’. I am not fit to blot Celine Kiernan’s ink nor sharpen her quills, and all that. I’m thinking of retraining as an organ-grinder.
But now for the review.
I’m in a muddle as to how to even begin to describe this book. It has a bit of everything – mystery, suspense, Gothic horror, the supernatural, science fiction, historical fiction, romance – and yet it’s more than any of this. It is, very resolutely, itself, and it sits just outside of definition. If this makes it sound like a mess, then forgive my muddled prose, because it most assuredly isn’t. It’s a complex story in the hands of a master craftswoman, and it’s utterly absorbing.
It’s the late nineteenth century in Dublin. Two young people, Tina and Joe, who have been friends since their earliest days, are hard-scrabbling their way through life using whatever talents they possess. Tina is a seamstress who makes costumes for the stage and Joe is a cab-driver with big plans for his future, and Tina’s. Into their lives stumbles a young man from New York named Harry, who is in Ireland to ply his trade as a magician, and finds himself at a loose end when the theatre he’s engaged to work at cancels his string of performances without notice. They encounter a wealthy benefactor named Lord Wolcroft and his mysterious coachman, and soon the three young people find themselves kidnapped, removed from their lives in the theatre district of a run-down, tenement-infested Dublin, and spirited away to a snow-bound mansion in the Irish countryside where an assortment of strange individuals live: Raquel, a woman who lives through, and for, her dolls; her ‘living’ children, who are a pair of characters I will never forget; Luke, the groundskeeper, and the villagers, who greet the returning Wolcroft with something akin to hunger.
Something very strange is going on in this manor house. People do not age; adults obey the cruel instructions of a pair of savage children; snow and ice keep the house locked in perpetual winter; strange lights glow far beneath the surface of the frozen lake. And beneath the house, deep in the cellars, a Bright Man lies captive.
Uncovering who (or what) this Bright Man is, what his strange power over the house and its inhabitants is and why he appears differently to different people, is one of the strands of this novel. Another is Tina and Joe’s story, which shows them willing to sacrifice anything for one another, their love – so long left unspoken – finally coming to the fore. A third is the story of Harry, itself so pleasing and with so many ties to reality (I don’t want to give away his identity here, but suffice to say that his depiction gave me great joy). A fourth is the relationships between the people who live in Fargeal Manor – Raquel, Cornelius (also known as Lord Wolcroft) and Vincent, along with the absent Matthew and the terrifying children – and how they interlock. Learning about their history with one another, the ties that bind them through the centuries of life they should never had lain claim to, the pain of Matthew’s loss (and his eventual fate), and what drives them is absolutely fascinating in its own right, and it’s a testament to this novel’s strength that, here, it’s only one immense plot thread among many. The settings are perfectly described (the theatres so real you can smell the greasepaint, and Fargeal Manor so convincing that you look up from reading and half-expect to see the grinning children standing in front of you), the plot is never anything less than gripping, and the characters – particularly Cornelius, for me, for reasons I can’t even describe – burrow into your mind. Even though you’re reading about fantastical events and set-pieces which are beyond the realms of reality, every word rings true and believable. Every page saw me hungry for the next. The ending is perfect.
There are shades of (good) Anne Rice here, and also hints of classic (by which I mean nineteenth-century) science fiction. The book is dark, at times terrifying, and even though it’s a story about three teenagers (Joe, Tina and Harry are all in their late teens), it’s really not a YA book, which is what I was expecting. In fact, this book confounded all my expectations. I thought I was getting a supernatural romance (and I did, in some respects) but in so many ways, the book isn’t even about its teen protagonists. The book is about life, and what you’ll do to preserve yours just as it is, and it’s about greed, and hunger, and the terror of change. It’s about sacrifice and self-loathing. It’s about love, but not just in the sense of romantic love – love of one’s friends, family, home. Love of one’s soul. It’s about religion, metaphysics, science, the mind, and magic. It’s about cruelty. It’s about the interplay between wealth and want, the landed gentry and the starving Irish poor, the Colonies and the home countries. It’s about corruption and decay.
It’s the best book I’ve read this year. I just can’t give it any higher recommendation than that. Brava to its brilliant author.