July 18, 2013

The Passing Bells by Phillip Rock

The guns of August are rumbling throughout Europe in the summer of 1914, but war has not yet touched Abingdon Pryory. Here, at the grand home of the Greville family, the parties, dances, and romances play on. Alexandra Greville embarks on her debutante season while brother Charles remains hopelessly in love with the beautiful, untitled Lydia Foxe, knowing that his father, the Earl of Stanmore, will never approve of the match. Downstairs the new servant, Ivy, struggles to adjust to the routines of the well-oiled household staff, as the arrival of American cousin Martin Rilke, a Chicago newspaperman, causes a stir. But, ultimately, the Great War will not be denied, as what begins for the high-bred Grevilles as a glorious adventure soon takes its toll—shattering the household's tranquillity, crumbling class barriers, and bringing its myriad horrors home. (Source: Goodreads)

My Thoughts
This book has repeatedly been recommended to Downton Abbey fans; also the front cover of the new edition says: "Before Downton Abbey, there was Abingdon Pryory..." As I am a hardcore Downton Abbey fan and upon reading Laurel Ann's review, I knew I must read this trilogy. And, I ordered all three books without hesitation, because I prefer reading all parts of a series, even if it's very likely that I won't love all parts equally. Anyway, I am currently reading the third instalment; so, I don't have an opinion of the whole series yet. Nevertheless, I wanted to share my thoughts about the first part as soon as possible. Also, I thought that this review would be just perfect for me to return to my neglected blog and to you.

First of all and most important, I must warn you that if you're expecting a Downton Abbeyish experience, you will be disappointed. This book differs in many ways from Downton Abbey, even though it seems rather obvious that Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter of Downton Abbey must have read this trilogy and it must have inspired him. However, in my humble opinion, Phillip Rock's The Passing Bells clearly surpasses Downton Abbey.

Certainly, I love the TV series and consider it to be a great source of entertainment, and one of the best period drama series of our times. But at the end of the day, Downton Abbey is nothing but a sugar-coated portrait of life before, during, and after the Great War. By contrast, The Passing Bells portrays life in the era of World War I with brutal honesty and naturalism. There is no escaping from reality. War is here and there, everywhere. People are dying at an unimaginable rate and in an incomprehensible tempo. There is no time for romanticism or even courtship, although you will read some beautiful love stories (and some quite explicit sex scenes). But these are always embedded in the events on the western front. Even though there are some people on the home front who seem to go on with their lives as tough nothing were happening, such people are deemed to be selfish or ignorant.

There have been several reviewers on Goodreads who criticised this book because in their opinion there is too much focus on warfare and events on the front. In my opinion, that's inevitable, if a book is set between 1914 and 1920, and if the author did not intend his book to be a penny dreadful, but wanted it to be a high-quality historical fiction. This is what I believe Phillip Rock was aiming at and succeeded in achieving. The Passing Bells is one of the best fictional accounts of World War I that I've ever read. It never became boring (I read every single sentence), even if I had to use my dictionary sometimes, because some military expressions were completely new to me. Through this book I learned more about this period than I've ever learned in all those boring history classes during my school years and at university. It was also interesting to read an account from the point of view of the "winners" of the war in contrast to the point of view of the "losers" represented in Hungarian history books. Although, upon reading The Passing Bells, it is clear to me that there were no winners.

For all the above-mentioned reasons, you should prepare yourself for having some sleepless nights because of the horrifying pictures you can't get out of your head and for weeping bitterly over the loss of some characters you have cared a lot about. I also have to mention that even though there are people downstairs and upstairs at Abingdon Pryory, the book's main focus is on the upstairs people. There's neither a love story between "Mr Bates" and "Anna" nor intrigues against them.

Nevertheless, I am sure you too will find the characters at Abingdon Pryory to be worth getting acquainted with.  The only thing I've found somewhat strange at first was that there were lots of sympathetic male characters from the outset, but it took longer to find some loveable females. Maybe there's a quite simple explanation for this, which is that the author is a man. Despite this fact I truly enjoyed reading The Passing Bells, highly recommend it to kindred spirits, and give it 4 out of 5 cherries. I cannot give it the highest mark, simply because of the heartaches I felt while reading...

Phillip Rock
William Morrow
Release Date:
516 Pages
4 out of 5 cherries

1 comment:

  1. I was interested in this series before reading your review, but am now convinced that I must read it soon!


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