Bells for Eli by Susan Zurenda: A Review
There are some books that you enjoy so much when you near the end you sort of panic and force yourself to stop reading. Thirty pages towards the end of Susan Zurenda’s novel, Bells for Eli, I had such a moment and deliberately set the novel on my nightstand to take up the next day. I don’t often pace myself or even cut myself off for the mere pleasure of extending a good read, but I did so with Bells for Eli.
Bells for Eli is told by an older Adeline, called Delia, reflecting on her years growing up with her first cousin, Eli. More than just a first cousin, he is her neighbor, her best friend, her true (and forbidden) love. Bells for Eli begins in August 1978 and flashes back to 1959 when Eli drinks lye, permanently damaging his esophagus. He undergoes surgeries and extremely painful procedures, and as a young child is unable to even eat—his mother grinds up food and inserts it into his stomach—and then moves forward as Delia and Eli grow up. The narrative has a dreamy quality, beginning with the prologue when Delia falls asleep in the cemetery, wakes up to the Green Branch town clock’s bells chiming, then contemplates herself and Eli while walking home. From the prologue forward, you are on edge waiting for the other shoe to drop. During scenes when Eli drives his new Camaro on Christmas day or when he climbs the bell clock tower, I held my breath. A handsome and reckless young man in adolescence, Eli falls in love and tries desperately to replace Delia with another version of her in Isabel. Despite his tragic accident, Bells for Eli is a celebration of Eli’s life.
The novel’s point of view—told from the point-of-view of first-person observer and protagonist, Delia Green—resembles the point-of-view in The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald—I will say I consulted Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway and mulled point-of-view over, wondering if this was a hybrid between first-person central and first-person peripheral. Is that possible? Who is this story about? It belongs to both Delia and Eli. Notice the similarity between their names. Is that coincidental? I don’t think so. I think the bells ring for both characters; they are both central to the story. They both suffer, learn, and love equally, but yes, the “I,” or the first-person narrator retelling this story is Delia, and she is the clear protagonist. Eli’s surgeries, the pain, being an outsider throughout his childhood all shape his life, but these events also equally shape Delia’s life. This point-of-view is tricky and masterful on Zurenda’s part. I seriously pondered it, wondered about the choice, and then considered how the point of view creates empathy. Sympathy and empathy are different creatures. This book is about empathy. If Eli told the story, we could commiserate with him, but only to a point, especially if he constantly complained about pain. Having that distance from the actual pain creates a sense of empathy which defines both Delia’s and Eli’s character. Ultimately, this choice in narration works because there is enough distance from Eli so that the narrator doesn’t become whiny; rather, Delia learns and changes and at the same time the reader learns and changes.
The story is a reflection from an older narrator, but when Delia recounts being four-years-old or sixteen-years-old, or whatever age, the voice, imagery, the setting, the dialogue, the action is captured from the perception of that age and time. This is difficult to pull off and shows a level of control not all authors possess. It’s tempting and much easier to speak in the narrator’s current voice. In Bells for Eli, you forget, as a reader, the “I” here is the older Delia and feel like you are experiencing what she felt at age four, at age sixteen, and the narrative supports it via historical and/or cultural references—some of them quite humorous. Though the novel has its tragic moments, it’s imbued with amusing anecdotes that rocketed me straight back into my own childhood and teenage years. I had a vivid sensation of being a child and standing before a rack of Barbie clothes encased in plastic with pure want coursing through my veins when Delia’s friend Gloria boasts about her Barbie’s Executive Career outfit. Zurenda takes you back to a place in time with references to Dark Shadows (a vampire soap opera my own mother watched), Delia’s Ziggy tee-shirt, or Delia and Eli being “placed in the red group, the top group” after reading from “Friends Old and New, Dick and Jane readers.” Oh, I recall this same process in grade school! In addition, some of my very favorite images are from the viewpoint of a very young Delia, describing Uncle Gene’s eyebrows as “caterpillars,” or imagining the white flowers of Mimi’s magnolia trees as popcorn. Thinking like a child, a teenager, a young adult and making the dialogue or imagery realistic for the age while maintaining the narrator’s voice is no small feat.
Now onto bells. Bells, bells, and more bells. As the title suggests, you need to pay attention to bells. One of my favorite literary devices is the symbol. Most organized religions use bells in rituals or services; some say the sound of a bell is the voice of God. Ringing bells are used to warn, as alarms to wake us, to honor people, to celebrate, to announce someone’s arrival, to ward off evil spirits. I could go on and on. Each time a bell appears in Bells for Eli, whether it is the clock bell tower in Green Branch or the doorbell at Magnolia Manor, new levels of meaning surface, and I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf’s chiming Big Ben and Zurenda’s bells have the effect of deliberately jarring the reader from the narrative. Woolf is reminding us that time is not linear. We live in the past, present, and future. We live in our heads, like Mrs. Dalloway; likewise, we relive Delia’s past, connecting it to her present, and ultimately the bells reinforce the fluidity of time with no beginning, middle, or end.
The bells also provide an auditory text. When a specific tune or chime was identified, I literally stopped and listened. Eli loves bells, and they play a significant role in his life. Zurenda’s bells are not arbitrary. When Delia and Eli visit Magnolia Manor, for example, “he nearly fell into the hedge jumping out of the car to get to the door and ring the bell.” Not only is this a wonderful example of something a kid would just do (I recalled fighting with my sisters over elevator buttons and doorbells), it says something important about Eli’s character. He is more connected to the divine, closer to it than others, because he faces a near death experience as a young child. He lives his life on the edge because of the mental and physical pain he undergoes. Attempting to escape the cruelty of his childhood, and desperate to fit in, he takes dangerous risks that revolve around bells because they help him escape his thoughts. In adolescence, Eli becomes heavily involved with drugs, simultaneously escaping and experimenting, always looking for something deeper, mapping out his philosophy. When golden bells make heavenly music during an LSD trip, they represent Eli’s need for peace. The bells remind the reader that time is brief, to wake up, live in the moment. In a world largely driven by visual imagery; it’s refreshing to read a novel that relies so heavily on sound imagery.
Thematically, Zurenda questions how love can transcend societal norms, but the book also explores loyalty and the strength of friendships and family. In addition, there is a sense of mystery that surrounds the main plot that keeps you reading which mirrors what happens between Delia and Eli. Bells for Eli is aesthetically pleasurable to read—the cultural imagery, bell symbolism, allusions to John Donne’s poetry—and is a real gem for Southern literature.
TO CONTACT SUSAN ZURENDA: firstname.lastname@example.org
More about Susan Zurenda:
After teaching literature, composition, and creative writing to thousands of high school and college students for 33 years, Susan turned her attention to putting a novel in her heart on paper, the genesis of which started with a short story that won a fiction prize some years ago. She is delighted to present her debut novel, Bells for Eli, to readers on March 2, 2020. During her years of teaching at Spartanburg Community College and then as an AP English teacher at Spartanburg High School, Susan published short stories and won numerous regional awards such as the South Carolina Fiction Prize (twice), the Porter Fleming Competition, The Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Fiction Contest, The Hub City Hardegree Contest in Fiction, Alabama Conclave First Novel Chapter Contest, and The Jubilee Writing Competition (twice). Since 2018, she has published six stories in literary magazines. For future events and to learn more about Susan Zurenda, please visit: www.susanzurenda.com.
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