Book Review: “The Bell at Sealey Head” by Patricia McKillip

Title: The Bell at Sealey Head
Series: No.
Author: Patricia McKillip
Pages: 227
Published: 2008 by ACE
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Sealey Head is a small coastal town home to a mysterious phenomenon: the sound of a bell tolling at every sunset, with no bell to make it. For centuries the citizens have ignored and accepted it as part of everyday life – most just tune it out. But some know more secrets than they tell others…
Reason for Beginning: It comes highly recommended by some of my friends. Plus the premise and the cover both are beautiful.
Reason for Finishing: A very sweet, lovely book, modest in tone but just about perfect for what it is. It’s also an easy, pleasant read, with characters you would want to meet in real life.
Story Re-readability: Reasonably strong, I think. Not so much for the plot, which is nice but not urgent, but for the characters, who are so likable and real they begin to feel like real friends. I felt comfortable and happy in their presence, and I’ll want to hang out with them again.
Author Re-readability: Very much so! In some ways McKillip’s writing in this book reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle’s. It’s deceptively simple, appearing almost unadorned, yet she chooses just the right expressions and images to evoke her world and characters. The story is neither rushed nor too slow, and the tension never so taut as to drastically disrupt the sense of comfortableness nor so lax as to seem boring. It’s a page-turner, but not in the conventional sense of a cliffhanger at every chapter break. Rather, I felt compelled to keep reading and reading, long after I told myself I’d stop for the day, simply because I wanted to be in Sealey Head, spending time with these people.
Recommendation: Yes! It would feel strange to call this book a classic, in the way that I can so easily name The Last Unicorn or Lilith one, not because it is lesser than they but because I think the book would blush and apologize for attracting so much attention to itself. Like its main characters Judd, Gwyneth, Emma, and Ridley, The Bell at Sealey Head has a charming modesty that belies its intelligent and poetic soul. It’s fantasy, with splashings of fairy story and myth, but really is more about the characters, their loves, and their society – parts of it feel inspired by Jane Austen.

Key Thoughts

There is a moment in this book where the hairs on the back of a character’s neck prickle at a story being told to her, and I felt my own neck hairs prickling as well. The humming of the refrigerator in the bank’s break room faded away, and I was fully immersed in the goings on in a small room in a humble house in the coastal town of Sealey Head. It wasn’t just the events of the plot that drew me in, although they did their part. It was that I could so easily locate myself in that character’s mind, see things through her eyes, and follow her thoughts as they mirrored my own. That’s the special gift of McKillip’s book: characters who feel like friends I know, like people I want to be like, who love what I love, and who are probably smarter and surer than me in everyday situations. I can hardly think of any flaws in the main characters, yet they all feel natural and real to me.

We first meet Judd Cauley, son of a local innkeeper by a seaside cliff at Sealey Head. He’s quiet, modest, hardworking, responsible, easy-going, and a voracious reader. I dare you not to like him. In fact, I dare you not to like Gwyneth, and Emma, and Ridley Dow. (The other characters are more…subjective in this regard.) I deeply suspect that just as writers love to write about writers, so do readers love characters who read as they do. Gwyneth has the distinction of being both, and a short story that she is working on ends up being important to the mood and gradual revelations of the plot. Her struggles in finding the right way to develop her story are easy for me to relate to. It is hardly a spoiler to say that the book’s primary romance is between her and Judd – the instant we discover that they both are readers, we know they are meant for each other. (Would that it were so easy in real life!)

Of course there are a few complications: Gwyneth is being aggressively courted by a richer young man, the brother of one of Gwyneth’s good friends, whom Gwyneth’s aunt (her mother having passed away) arrogantly assumes she will marry. This rich young man, Raven Sproule, is a nice fellow, surely, but far and away no lifelong match for her. The chief pleasure of Gwyneth’s romance with Judd is that, although they have this obstacle and maybe one or two others between them, they otherwise have a pretty easy time of it. Meaning, they don’t have to deal with those contrived misunderstandings and irritating catastrophes that show up in so many so-called “romantic comedies.” Each of them loves and trust the other – they just proceed carefully because they are unsure if their feelings are requited. Their sweetness is honest, understated, and warm. They say what they mean and recognize honesty and delight in each other. And when this becomes clear—when they realize that they do indeed love each other—the other obstacles immediately lose their threat, despite the desperate natterings of Gwyneth’s aunt.

Ah, but this is merely one part of the book, out of many! See how easily I speak at length about the characters I love the most, in a book that is ostensibly about a haunting phenomenon and portals between worlds? The above relationship is what sticks most in my mind, but the fantastic mystery itself is also plenty interesting. Every day, as the sun hits the line of water on the horizon, a bell tolls across the headland. Yet there is no bell in Sealey Head! Gwyneth writes stories about what she thinks it might be, but Ridley Dow comes to town to discover the truth. A somewhat absent-minded scholar, modest yet obviously wealthy, respectful yet impulsive, speaking in hushed tones of strange things and suddenly disappearing into the night for secret investigations or heroic actions, he is likable and fascinating all at once. We don’t get into his head as we do with Judd and Gwyneth, but he’s a great character for them to interact with. In fact, I could almost see a series based on his adventures…

But no matter. The secret of the bell at Sealey Head I will leave you to discover on your own, as there is no point in discussing it here. I am satisfied with it, although a little more explanation on the how and why would have been appreciated. It’s poetic, and a bit unexpected in the right way.

Patricia McKillip has managed the difficult job of stumbling upon an excellent premise and then refusing to let it dominate the plot entirely, focusing instead on natural, immensely likable characters who in return enrich all the story around them.

P.S. You have no idea how many times I almost typed “Ridley Scott” instead of Ridley Dow!


Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Bell at Sealey Head” by Patricia McKillip”

  1. “parts of it feel inspired by Jane Austen.” ! Does this mean you’ve read her?

    Your manner of presenting this review seems poetic, as if the book itself inspired you. 🙂

    1. *ahem* Um…yes, if you count the first five chapters of Emma. A few years ago. I’m going largely on her reputation, film adaptations, and what I’ve gleaned from talking with my older sister, who is a major Austen fan/scholar. Basically my comparison amounts to: romantic intrigue with believable, likable people in a mundane pseudo-Victorian setting = Jane Austen-ish. Which is extremely shallow, yes, but it’s what my mind came up with while reading this book. +)

      Why thank you, dear friend. Good books seem to bring out the best in me as a writer. Some internet reviewers prefer to review bad books or movies because of the comedic potential therein (ThatGuyWithTheGlasses, for instance). I much prefer to review good stories.

      1. *chuckles* ah, I see. Fair enough. Though given your historical bent I will rag you about “psudo-victorian.” Austen was pre-victorian. 😉

        As much as I am amused by a well-done roasting, the joy inherent in praising something that merits praise is more edifying. It is good, I think, that, while not shying away from criticism, you yet find pleasure in being more positive than “clever.”

  2. You’ve hit on one of the things I love so much about McKillip: she doesn’t subordinate her characters to the magic (though her magic is always enchanting, in all possible senses of the word). Her characters are just also so very likable, and always have been, as I can attest from reading Riddlemaster right now.

    Speaking of how she enjoys writing about characters who are writers, there’s a moment in her latest book, The Bards of Bone Plane, in which one of the characters goes to his university library and tries to do research for his thesis. There’s a delightful paragraph where he thinks about what a daunting task is before him, about how he doesn’t know what do say, and ends with him wondering how all the people managed to write the books he’s surrounded by. It’s one of my favorite passages in the book, because I completely understand those thoughts.

    Also, I really like your image of the book’s own modesty at being called a classic. I think you’re right.

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