There are some books you read lightly—a comic novel, a thriller, a glib self-help. You pick them up and put them down easily, and they leave no grooves in the mind.
But there are some books that drop you like a stone into a lake. They change your atmosphere and make the non-book world seem murky. After fifty or so pages of steady reading, it’s hard to readjust to reality. All you want to do is talk about the book, and you wish that the characters were real.
“Kells: A novel of the eighth century” by Chicago playwright and novelist Amy Crider, is this kind of book. Beautifully written—it drops you completely into the medieval world, with all its terrors and wonder. Its language is simple, elegant and blessedly free from anachronisms of both thought and language. Its characters think and describe their surroundings like people of the Middle Ages. They focus on survival in a perilous time and on their relationships with God, the saints, and one another.
“Kells” is about the making of the famous Celtic illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels. The book was created by Columban monks, possibly on the isle of Iona off the coast of Scotland, and miraculously preserved despite Viking raids. It is now on display at Trinity University in Dublin. It is transcendent art made not by an individual, but by a community, with pieces contributed by different scribes.
The novel “Kells” focuses on a series of interrelated characters, some real, like Charlemagne and the scribe Connachtach, some imaginary. One real character is Pangur Ban, a monastery cat who inspired a poem in a monk’s notebook. Sections of “Kells” are told from different points of view. It begins with Connachtach, a man who realizes his talents and desires go beyond keeping cattle and makes the wrenching decision to leave his beloved sister Oona and beautiful, blind niece Deirdre to risk a sea voyage to return to the monastery he left as a child.
Subsequent sections are told from the point of view of Oona, who attempts to follow her brother, and Cellach, a young man who comes to the monastery as a servant and must choose between a monk’s life and a worldly one. The book travels from Northern Ireland to the Hebrides Islands, then into the empire of Charlemagne and the Holy Land, as Cellach and his companions search materials—particularly lapis lazuli—to create the book.
In Crider’s previous novel, the award-winning psychological thriller “Disorder,” she mined her own experience with bipolar disorder. For “Kells,” she read fifty books, including Thomas Cahill’s wonderful “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” She also took a Celtic art class from the Irish American Heritage Center in Chicago and studied a full-sized facsimile of the Book of Kells in the rare books room of the Harold Washington Library.
Coming out of this immersion in the Kells world, Crider’s novel is free of traces of dusty scholarship. It goes beyond the “and-then-and-then” dreariness of some historical writing and focuses on her characters’ humanity, with their struggles against human violence, jealous companions, physical and mental illness, and their own wayward thoughts.
In one of the most beautiful passages, a monk, suffering from cancer, reflects on his own joy in the creation of illuminations. “It is the joy of emptiness, though the page is covered and filled with color and pattern more intense than any wild meadow, than any flower’s center, than the iris of a hazel eye. The pattern soars to heaven, and the mind is blank as the beginning, the mind moves to a white unshadowed sky, into a steady grey ocean wave, into a black moonless night.” “Kells” is not just about the past, but about the life-giving power of art, created despite all the world’s dangers, bringing light into a dark age.
There will be a book launch at The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, Chicago, on Tuesday, October 24, 2023 at 7pm.
“Kells: A novel of the eighth century”
By Amy Crider
University of New Orleans Press, 496 pages
Mary Wisniewski is a Chicago writer and author of “Algren: A Life.”