Reviewed by Sara Hodon
by Beerly Swerling
Paperback: 416 pages, January 28, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0142180808
The past visits the present in Bristol House, a sophisticated literary mystery by Beverly Swerling that is part supernatural thriller, part historical fiction.
Annie Kendall, a recovering alcoholic trying to revive her career as an architectural historian, is offered a job in London as a researcher for the Shalom Foundation, a prestigious if somewhat obscure organization, and jumps at the chance to redeem herself professionally. Her assignment? To research a few pieces of Judaica that reportedly belonged to the Jew of Holborn that supposedly date back to Tudor England and were taken from the grasp of the Knights Templar, thought to be lost to history. A few days into her residence at Bristol House, she encounters the ghost of a Cartusian monk who leaves mysterious clues and does an admirable job of making Annie deeply uncomfortable. Her desire to restore her professional credibility and exorcise some pretty severe demons outweighs her scare factor, however, so Annie bravely continues her research.
The mystery deepens when Annie meets Geoff Harris, a popular TV personality whose stunning good looks take her immediately by surprise, but not because of an instant attraction—Geoff is the present-day lookalike of the ghost of Bristol House. It seems too convenient to be a coincidence—both Geoff and the ghost are meant to bring Annie some sort of message. Another key element of the story is the huge mural of scenes from the city of London that covers a wall of Annie’s flat—it seems like nothing more than a remarkable feature of the flat at first, but it becomes a key part of the plot as the story unfolds. It is really more of a giant puzzle that contains clue to the mystery Annie stumbles upon.
Swerling includes a number of plot structures that seem completely unrelated at first read. As the story unfolds, the reader may find himself asking, “How are all of these pieces connected?” Besides the mysterious ghost, Annie encounters Geoff’s mother and her friend the rabbi, both with histories as ace code breakers during World War II. And then, just to keep things interesting, Swerling interjects narrative from the ghost himself—Dom Justin, a monk who lived during the 1530’s and isn’t completely trustworthy to his cause; who is held up in Purgatory but waiting for the opportunity to atone for sins he has committed. While he has the most opportunity to tell his story, Giacomo of Lombard (a goldsmith and the Jew of Holborn) also takes a turn at narrative. The tales from the 1530’s paint a picture of a very different London, a city whose religious leaders are at an impasse. Religious persecution is common, thus the connection to the Jew of Holborn and Dom Justin. The Jew of Holborn forges valuable pieces of gold that will later be invaluable historical relics. It will be these pieces, then, that Annie Kendall’s boss will seek and Annie will be asked to locate, more than five hundred years later.
Bristol House is as unique a literary mystery as one is ever likely to read. Swerling makes some interesting choices with her narrative. At first impression, Annie Kendall strikes the reader as a brilliant, competent researcher whose personal transgressions have cost her, deeply, on a professional level. There are moments in the story where her carefully reconstructed self—the self rebuilt from countless AA meetings and confronting her deepest fears and strongest weaknesses—nearly shatter and the former, scarred Annie threaten to reemerge. It seems as though Annie is trying to atone for her past professional mistakes, and at moments, she nearly gives in to her desperation—to be recognized as an accomplished scholar in her field, as an employable individual, as a mother—yet the tiniest thread of self-preservation holds her back and allows her to keep her values. Thanks to Geoff Harris’ help and encouragement, Annie learns that her boss’ reasons for uncovering the Judaica are not exactly honorable, which keeps Annie on the defense throughout. The reader gets the sense that she is truly on her way to redemption. Where she may have been muddled and clouded by alcohol in the past, when she arrives in London to accept the job she is clear-headed and ready to work, so it’s difficult not to be on her side. Swerling also makes some interesting plot choices. As someone largely unfamiliar with Jewish rituals, practices, and observances, I learned quite a bit from this book. Swerling seeks to educate her readers, which she does very successfully.
Besides the historical backstory, Swerling offers a present-day romance with all of the necessary complications. Annie is hoping to restore her professional reputation and taking cautious steps to repair her relationship with her estranged son (Swerling reveals this in bits and pieces—a note here, a postcard there—as if to represent the cautious steps Annie takes to rebuild that connection). Geoff, though he resembles a 16th century ghost, is, in fact, holding on to ghosts of his own—he is still mourning the wife he has lost some years ago, and his attraction to Annie is the first major step he has taken to put his past behind him. It is heartening to see two characters with such broken parts of their pasts take such major steps to heal themselves. Their attraction is immediate, yet they proceed with caution. The desire to see this relationship develop was enough to keep reading.
This is not your ordinary literary mystery. There is no Gothic setting—no dark or foreboding castles, no dusty bookstore or tortured presence who threatens the delicate structure of the plot or characters at every turn. Yes, Swerling alternates between the past and present-day, but the historical details compliment the current plotline. We don’t get the sense that the ghost is out to harm Annie or Geoff—quite the contrary, he is trying to warn them that very real dangers exist in their current time; the ghost’s role is simply to provide historical context so that they can unravel some very real present-day mysteries.
Bristol House is an enjoyable, multi-layered novel that promises to educate readers while keeping them guessing.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com