The debut novel of E.R. Murray, The Book of Learning, published earlier this month by Mercier Press, is a complex and fast-moving tale. Set between West Cork and Dublin, it makes great use of the urban/rural divide, showing its heroine Ebony Smart at home in nature and at sea in the big city, unsure of herself and having to learn a new way of life when she is transplanted from one place to the other after the death of her beloved grandpa. Unluckily for Ebony, this sad event takes place on her twelfth birthday, and even more unluckily, she barely has time to catch her breath before her whole life is uprooted.
Learning that she has an aunt she’d never heard of before, and told by a sniffy ‘Judge’ that she must go to live with her instead of being allowed to stay on her grandfather’s farm where she has lived all her life up to that point, Ebony finds herself in an entirely new world. Living on the top floor of an old Georgian house in the heart of Dublin city, one in which all the windows are nailed shut and every creaking door and whispering floor has a different secret to tell, she is at a loss what to do next. Her ‘uncle’ Cornelius – his relation to Aunt Ruby somewhat dubious – seems more animal than human, and her aunt is full of strange tales, trying to get Ebony to believe she is part of a group of people who can reincarnate, but that something dark and unexplained has begun to threaten their way of life. She meets a strange, shadowy man named Icarus Bean who warns her that she is not safe, along with a boy named Zach Stone who seems to have unexplained powers (and who becomes her only human friend – but can he be trusted?) but she relies completely for company on her brave, intelligent rat, Winston, whose constant presence is her only comfort.
In her aunt and uncle’s study, Ebony comes across a small book bound in metal covers. Calling itself The Book of Learning, a panel on its back cover reads ‘Property of Ebony Smart’. This, naturally, comes as some surprise; Ebony has never seen it before. She smuggles it out, determined to get to the bottom of its secrets. It soon transpires that the book shows different things to different people; where it explains something of Ebony’s past history to her (though, naturally, leaving much unexplained!) it seems to show something completely different to Zach, something painful and frightening. Through using the book, and through uncovering some of the secrets of 23 Mercury Lane, her new home, Ebony learns she must get to the bottom of a murder which has been committed. The only problem is, she’s not sure which murder. She fears it may be that of her grandfather, who – despite medical opinions which say he died of natural causes – she feels was killed, and by someone she knows. Then, chances are the book is talking about another murder altogether, one rather closer to home – the murder of Ebony herself, carried out in one of her past lives. But how to solve a crime committed over two hundred years before?
As it becomes clear that the Order of Nine Lives is not a figment of Aunt Ruby’s imagination, and that Ebony not only belongs to it but has lived before, many times over, the mysteries surrounding it grow ever more complex. Eventually Ebony is led back ‘home’ to Cork, where a strange black rose planted and cultivated by her grandfather turns out to be more than a simple flower, but the key to her destiny – but can she put the puzzle together in time to save herself, her family, and Winston, who has been kidnapped by person or persons unknown?
My favourite aspect of this book was the settings it used. It’s clear that the author loves both Dublin city and the countryside of Cork, and this affection comes through in her evocative descriptions of Ebony’s house, St Stephen’s Green (where Zach lives), the Botanic Gardens (where the headquarters of the Order of Nine Lives is located) and the National Library (where Ebony goes to research her past selves), as well as the natural beauty of her grandfather’s farm. The perilous voyage Ebony takes near the book’s conclusion is grippingly described, and the details of countryside life add a wonderful air of realism to the Cork-based scenes. However, I admit to a certain level of confusion in relation to the mythology of the families who have the power to reincarnate – it took me several reads of the relevant parts of the book to fully get to grips with the system of reincarnation (which takes place in a ‘sky world’ named the Reflectory, access to which is supposed to be tightly restricted) and I wasn’t entirely sure of the connections between the Nine Lives families and the balance of power in the universe. I also felt, at times, that Ebony has a dangerous tendency to ignore her ‘inner voice’ (which seems to pop up just when she needs it but which, nonetheless, is normally jettisoned in favour of her doing what she feels like) which is not always advisable! Having said that, she is a brave, undaunted character, determined to get to the truth surrounding her grandfather and herself, loyal and devoted to her friends (particularly Winston, who I loved), and I had to admire the way she copes with the sea-change in her life.
There’s enough intrigue (and motorbikes, and boats, and accidents, and gruesome deaths) here to keep boys entertained, and enough hard-nosed, determined, hot-headed and brave displays of girly brilliance here to keep girls hooked, and enough complexity to challenge even the most accomplished of readers. The Book of Learning is the first part of a trilogy, and it’ll be interesting to see What Ebony Does Next – and who will survive to join her!