Victoria Dougherty‘s writing immerses you into a world of danger and distrust, Gothic stone buildings and a rapidly changing world. We are thrust into the lives of those who are still intermeshed with the aftermath of World War II and the war itself (through memories). The cobblestones are palpable through your cold, wet shoes, your eyes dart towards every moving shadow in an alleyway and you feel the dull greyness of the world in your soul. You hear the sound of a truck and react with a visceral start. There is no safety even as you devise moments that push away the fear. Hers is not a world of superheroes, clever quips or long distance techno-war with missiles or drones. It is personal and the fighting is up-close; it’s full of risk and it smells. Everyone’s hands are dirty and your largest decision is in whom to place your trust. This is a world peopled with true heroes whose tasks are overwhelmingly daunting, yet they move forward with what hope they can muster.
Not all is dark and none of it is dull. It is set in Prague, a city so quintessentially European that’s it’s frequently used to represent Europe in films such as Amadeus, Mission Impossible (1), Casino Royale and The Illusionist just to name a few. There are the Czech people: earthy, real, interconnected and imperfect, as are we all. In the midst of war and its aftermath, these people collide with themselves. You have a carefree Hockey star who must become invisible and sacrificial. You have a half-gypsy, jaded through a lifetime of slights, a survivor, who is willing to give his all for his friend. Then there’s the church referenced in the title, Sedlec Ossuary, in Kutná Hora (a bit over 50 miles from Prague). I fail in what little word-smithing art I have; there are no words that match the strange, surreal feeling it invites. It is on this beautiful, chaotic and epic stage, where people are impossibly tossed together through the ravages of war and the resulting communistic rule, that a piercing love story is written. This is a love story of people, yes, but also love of God and the country of your birth.
This story’s “present day” is set in the mid-50s where an effort is made to recover a woman and her son caught on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. We are, for the majority of the book, pulled back into World War II and told the story of the people and events that led to this daring rescue attempt. The historical action mostly takes place in Prague and its environs starting late in the War (December 1943) through to the end with the Russians taking over.
Ms. Dougherty’s words weave us into this story. Her writing is so natural to her topic that the words simply recede and we are there. (I suspect the writing was anything but natural or easy on her part, but she made it so on ours.) If she could simply describe places and people so that we lived in and met them, that would have made for a good book. If she wrote a mesmerizing narrative in which we were caught in the intrigue of war and espionage, that would have made for a good book. If her dialog and pacing felt authentic, that would have made a good book. What makes The Bone Church extraordinary is that she does all of that while giving us a little history lesson. These are people and places that stay with you, even with their strange-sounding names (to my ears). Navigating the web of deceit, misdirection and motivations is sometimes challenging, but always rewarding. While it is a gripping story, it’s not a quick page-turner. It allows us to live into the culture and times in a way that requires a little different pacing. Again, well worth taking the time but it requires a modicum of patience.
While this tale may resonate with me more than some, I grew up in the cold war, its themes are universal but brought out more fully in the hot and cold wars. Love and loss, hope and failure, and bravery and cowardice all have their day. I cannot recommend this book enough with the caveat that it has very adult themes. Let the reading and times seep into your bones, come to know Srut, warts and all, walk the back streets of Prague and glory in the ballrooms of Kutná Hora, follow the Angels as they minister to Felix and never forget the Jews of the Holocaust and the Gypsies of Europe.