THE SECOND BELL by Gabriela Houston (BOOK REVIEW)
The Second Bell by debut author Gabriela Houston is a beautiful atmospheric blend of Polish folklore, coming of age and dark fantasy.
The story centres around a mother and her newborn child who are abruptly banished from their village and cast out into the woods. Yet such cruelty is not without its reason, and this child is by no means an ordinary one, for you see she holds a second heart. It is believed that those born with the sound of double heartbeats are born a striga, a terrifying monstrous being that will wreak havoc, devour and kill humans. Fear drives the villagers to desperate measures and so every time a child is born with a double heart they summon a Dola, a woman who has visions foretelling the future, and she is to tie leather around the child’s wrist and abandon it in the forest to die. Yet every now and then a mother would refuse to give up her child, and so they both would be exiled to a striga village in the mountains, never to return. This is where our story begins, for Miriat won’t let her child Salka go, and will stop at nothing to protect her,
Nineteen years pass and Miriat and Salka have settled into life in the Striga village. Though it is not an easy one, and it is not without its hardships. Living a life of very little luxury is hard to bear, yet what becomes even harder is that all strigas who live in the village have to control their second heart‘s desires and not let their accompanying shadow possess them. If they let the striga heart take over then they become a stigoi, a savage demon. Yet as we all know beliefs do not always mean absolute truths.
“She took a deep breath in and the shadow behind her moved almost imperceptibly, with ripples like the surface of a lake. A sensation of warmth tracing the line of her spine jolted her. She held her breath and tried to force the shadow down into the listless pool on the floor, as she’d always done before.
A breath in, hold, a breath out, like she’d been taught. She gasped. For the first time, the shadow pushed back.”
Throughout the novel we see Houston weave Polish folklore into a tale of motherhood, prejudice and surviving against all odds. The striga is a well known Slavic mythological creature, one that has often been portrayed as deadly cursed beings. However, Houston takes this concept and shows us that nothing is always as it seems. Miriat and Salka are both presented as strong willed, hard-working and pragmatic women. Although their relationship is often strained, an unconditional bond is felt between them. Miriat, like any mother would, only wants her daughter to be safe and not succumb to the darkness within her. Salka, just like all the other striga’s in the village, battles her second heart and her shadow which both long for her to set them free to do as they will. Salka is curious to explore the striga within her, she desires to feel her shadow’s warmth, it’s protectiveness and its connection to the natural world. Does that make her a monster? Yes, there is a darkness within her, but she has such a gentle caring nature about her too. She longs for the chance to grow, to discover who she is, to set her own path away from her mother’s overbearing presence. In essence she is very much human.
It is, however, embedded in human nature to fear what we do not understand, prejudice is born of sheer ignorance and Houston distinctly portrays this throughout the narrative. Evil is not an innate concept, it is the choices we make in life, the morals we choose to adhere to which determines whether we have ill intent or whether we strive to do good. Houston explores this through her entire cast of characters. Yet it is Salka we empathise with the most, she lives on the borders of two worlds: one of human judgement and one of striga judgement, and neither of them will accept her true self.
’“There is no me without you, daughter, do you understand? I wouldn’t wish to stay in a place that doesn’t want you. I couldn’t.”’
Houston’s prose throughout The Second Bell is classic fairytale-esque, it flows smoothly and immerses you in this dark foreboding world. The omnipresent narrative style allows the reader to see into different characters’ lives and discover the secrets they each hold, which was particularly effective when it came to characters such a Dran and Alma who’s motives were more than a little devious. I had hoped to see more depth from the Dola’s character – a Dola is an aspect of Polish mythology which I’m unfamiliar with and therefore I found myself wanting to know more about her ability to see visions of the future and to also learn more about her past. The atmospheric descriptions of the village surroundings and the forest were truly beautiful, and this is where I feel Houston’s prose truly shines. Knowing that the author grew up in Poland exploring the woodlands, I can see a genuine love of nature reflected in her prose.
As we reach towards the second half of the novel we are constantly teased with small glimpses of the powers in which a striga possesses. I loved the way Houston keeps us turning the pages until we reach the last few chapters in which we discover the full force of what a strigoi can do.
The Second Bell at its heart is a book about sacrifices. What would a mother sacrifice to keep her child safe? Which lines are they willing to cross? Both Miriat and Salka sacrifice freedom for each other, but in the end those sacrifices only bring them closer together. The novel ends on a bittersweet note, much has been lost, but there is now a sense that the future could hold so much hope.
ARC provided by Caroline Lambe at AngryRobot. Thank you for the copy! All quotes used are taken from an e-ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
You can pre-order The Second Bell and get a signed bookplate right here: https://www.thebrokenbinding.co.uk/product-page/the-second-bell-gabriela-houston