Book review: The Morning Bell rings with truth and lyricism 

Manuel writes eloquent and lyrically beautiful sentences and evokes both the menace and grandeur of the sorrowful complexity of human connections.

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The Morning Bell brings the Broken Hearted

Jennifer Manuel | Douglas & McIntyre

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$24.95 | 272 pp

In a world laced with darkness and suffering, we do what we can to make the darkness bearable. Human solidarity and art are two of our weapons against the dark, and both are in plentiful supply in B.C. author Jennifer Manuel’s new novel The Morning Bell brings the Broken Hearted.

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Molleigh Royston — of settler ancestry — is the novel’s protagonist, a middle-aged teacher trying to make a go of her new calling in a remote Indigenous village on the B.C. coast. At the story’s beginning, Molleigh is already discouraged by the challenges presented by her traumatized students and the dark history of colonialism and torments that haunt the village and the children she wants to help.

The book’s opening lines set the stage for a subtle, sophisticated narrative that explores themes of racism, misogyny, the power of story, self-worth and self-doubt:  “From the front door of my grey trailer home, my commute across the old logging road to the school took precisely 46 steps. Forty-six steps I no longer wanted to take.”

The Morning Bell brings the Broken Hearted by Jennifer Manuel.
The Morning Bell brings the Broken Hearted by Jennifer Manuel. Douglas & McIntyre

This is not the first time Manuel has grappled with this problematic material. In her Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize-winning debut novel, 2016’s The Heaviness of Things ThaT Float, the protagonist, a nurse, is another non-Indigenous woman who has worked among the Indigenous. The moral ambiguity of the well-meaning outsider and her interventions into their life broods over both books. The author’s concern about these issues is rooted in her own experience as a non-Indigenous teacher to Indigenous children.

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Manuel writes eloquent and lyrically beautiful sentences and evokes both the menace and grandeur of the coastal rainforest and the sorrowful complexity of human connections throughout the novel. In addition, the author has a story to tell that is both a mystery and a ghost story, and she leaves much of the mystery unresolved by the end of the book. She does, however, provide enough narrative resolution to make the remaining unanswered questions, in contrast,  powerfully resonant. The tender and lovely pun in the phrase “morning bell” adds to this sense of beautiful mystery.

In 2016 Manuel told a Vancouver Courier interviewer: “Non-indigenous people, too, need to actively insert themselves into the process of confronting the colonial legacy, and their privilege, and by questioning things like the idea that’s deeply embedded in us as non-First Nations people, that our ways of knowing and seeing and being are superior.”

Highly recommended.

-Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at [email protected] 

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