Saturday 20 October 2018

Book Review: Death Watch, by Ari Berk

Book Review – Death Watch, by Ari Berk

We have always been fascinated by ghosts. In myth and legend, art and religion, they come to frighten, sometimes to amuse, always to raise questions about our own mortality. It is the ghost of Hamlet’s father that sets in motion the events of Shakespeare’s famous play, and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, that enliven Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.So when Aindrila Roywas kind enough to gift me a book whose central theme appeared to be ghosts, I settled myself down for what I hoped would be a grand read in that hoary tradition. 

I was not disappointed.

In ‘Death Watch’,Ari Berkpresents a stirring, creepily atmospheric tale of the living and the dead, and those whose job it is to take souls from the land of the one to the other. Drawing upon various ancient and medieval mythologies and more modern beliefs, the book takes the readers on a truly goosebumps-inducing journey over the course of its 500-odd pages. 

Silas Umber is an introverted American teenager who does not seem to be particularly unusual for his type—shy, believing in imaginary friends, having few in real life, and caught in the middle of his parents’ unhappy marriage. His father Amos is a mortician, and his mother Dolores a housewife, and while they live in the town of Saltsbridge, his father’s work usually takes him to Lichport, a nearby coastal town where Silas was born.

But when his father disappears suddenly, Silas is forced to confront the reality that perhaps his father was something much more than a mortician, and his mother is little more than a barely-functioning alcoholic. As their money runs out, Silas and Dolores have to return to Lichport to stay with Amos’ elder brother, Charles. Silas finds himself distrusting his uncle and the more he meets and befriends the other people of Lichport who knew his father, the more he learns about the line of work he has been born into—for the Umbers are an old family, and for long have had the responsibility of easing the passage of the living to the world of the dead, and other things besides.

In Berk’s deft prose, Lichport itself comes alive as a vast sprawling necropolis, a town dedicated to the dead and those who linger beyond death. Silas, as the heir to the Umber profession, is received by the town as one of its own, and as he takes on, literally and metaphorically, his father’s mantle, we are taken with him on a journey where the borders between life and death blur in ways that are often sad, and sometimes frightening. 

Here we have the lovely Bea who Silas loses his heart to, the strange Mrs Bowe and her ghost lover, Mother Peale of the Narrows, ever on the lookout for the Mist Ship, which comes to take the souls of the damned, the three women of the Lichport Sewing Circle, who weave a tapestry and unweave it as events unfold. But just as much character comes from the Umber House, the Beacon HillNewfieldswith its giant bronze lion, the millpond and the Narrows where the Sorrowsman wails out his horrifying tale.

The book is essentially about Silas’ search for his missing father, and to some extent about his relationship with Bea, but those end up being like a hiking trail—existing mostly to give us an opportunity to revel in the beauty of the world Berk creates. Indeed, so immersive is the world of Lichport that as a reader one can almost forget, at times, that there is the matter of Silas’ father to clear up; it seems almost secondary to the broader story about what death is, and what it means to ‘Rest in Peace’.

Despite the morbidity of the subject, Silas is a character who embodies hope, and has a deep-rooted desire to make the world of both living and dead better. His enduring love for his father, his simple and almost-pathetic feelings for Bea, even after he realizes who she is, all make for a likeable protagonist, while the handling of the subject means that even over its considerable length, the narrative rarely becomes boring, even if there are passages where very little seems to happen.

All said and done, Death Watchis an enjoyable read, especially for those who enjoy horror (though you know, probably not at night in an empty house and so on). It is possible that removing a POV or two might have made for a tighter story, but that will always be a matter of opinion. Also, some aspects, such as Silas’s relationship with Bea and the significance of the Mist Ship, are perhaps not as well-explored or as well-concluded as I might like, but with this being the first of a trilogy, perhaps these are to be seen in more detail later. This does not mean that the book does not work well stand-alone, because it does, but it has certainly also piqued my interest to read its sequels. 

Ari Berk deserves praise for his handling of characters and settings, for weaving myths that we know in a refreshing way and for taking a subject of such morbidity and managing to write a story that feels alive. None of the horror relies on cheap tricks or gimmicks, and like its characters who linger beyond death, Death Watch is a book that seems determined to stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.

Buy the book here:

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