THE BOOK OF KELLS
R.A. MacAvoy


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Bantam, 1985
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Time Travel Fantasy

John Thornburn, immersed in tracing a thousand-year-old carving, has no reason to expect a screaming young woman to dash out of his bathroom. She doesnít speak any language he knows, and she seems to be tearing up his bedroom.

John isnít particularly practical about this sort of thing, so he calls Derval OíKeane. Derval is the woman who brought him to Ireland to study the carved cross, and who Ė for lack of anyone else Ė has been taking care of the details of Johnís life. Derval, learned in Irish history, discovers young Ailesh is speaking Old Irish.

Making a startling mental leap, Derval realizes Ailesh has traveled in time from Old Ireland. Her screams as she arrived were the result of being raped and seeing her whole community slaughtered by raiding Danes. Derval has quite a temper. She promises Ailesh that she and John will help Ailesh get vengeance. Back they go to a wild and alien time, in which Danes still lurk, but so do gods, goddesses, and magic from the most unexpected sources.

I read THE BOOK OF KELLS once before, when it came out in 1985. Ever since then, the character of John Thornburn has lingered in my mind with a tinge of awe. John is small, vague, hapless, disconnected, but put a pencil in his hand and he works wonders. In Old Ireland, Johnís habit of acting in absence of thought seems to make him an instrument of the gods. John Cattle Leaper, they call him, and to the people of Old Ireland, he commands an admiration that he hardly notices. To John, little has changed. He is still ruled by visions of art that pour over him and demand his expression.

Derval forms new connections in Old Ireland. She and an uninspiring poet named Labres MacCullen clash instantly, and spend most of the book working out their inner conflicts on each other. MacAvoy has an obvious affinity with John, but in the thoughts of Derval and MacCullen she shows an understanding of folk on the fringe, who have abilities they havenít been able to connect with. The youngest member of their group, the endearing Ailesh, knows from her artist father the value of an inspired craftsman. Her instinctive nurturing of John gives stature to them both.

MacAvoy is an artist in words. In THE BOOK OF KELLS, she creates magic even where the story involves nothing out of the ordinary. For example, the way a forest changes character depending on the mood of our group. Here they are wandering, all but lost, in unfamiliar territory. The trees are tentative, and the rain is topsy-turvy. "...The oak and elm had given way to a net of pale birch leaves which shuddered in a wind from the west. The rain had given up, except under the trees." (pp. 80) Then, here is a satire on MacCullen: "But how could a poet work under the leaves of trees in dappled sunlight, while swaying to the motion of a pacing horse and listening to birdsong? He would have to find a room with a mattress for a few hours and pull the shutters on himself." (pp. 149)

R.A. MacAvoy began a high-quality writing career with her award-winning TEA WITH THE BLACK DRAGON and the acclaimed DAMIANO trilogy. She followed these with THE BOOK OF KELLS, which firmly established her as one of the masters of fantasy in the delicate, poetic style. Her knowledge of Ireland old and new, her love for and especially her understanding of her characters, makes their stories beautiful and enthralling.

Aug 2003 Review

 

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