Given its sturdy foundation as a Da Vinci Code-type mystery of ancient maps and a mysterious monk who crosses the centuries , miraculously appearing in central London, I had high hopes for Swerling’s gothic/contemporary noir story. The opening pages are filled with promise, yet somewhere along the way, Bristol House becomes too clogged with the detritus of history. Reading this novel was like a marathon ordeal, a stubbornness parodying the very trials of the tortured narrator, architectural historian Dr. Annie Kendall.
Arriving in London to undertake the work of a wealthy American philanthropist, Annie thinks of little else.
She is on the brink of a new and shining future, her stomach tied in knots and turmoil leaking into the corners of her mind.
She finds herself ensconced in Southampton Row’s Bristol House. A “little piece of the world,” it’s not the busy Southampton Row’s traffic or the first few notes of birdsong, nor the deathly quiet of the
house itself that attracts her, but a steady chanting, a litany that ebbs and flows and calls on Annie to answer.
Strong and insistent, the chant that surrounds her seems to come from everywhere, but the rooms in Bristol House seem empty of ghosts. When Annie views a white-robed monk bathed in sunshine and
wearing a cowl, the thrown-back hood typical of many monastic habits, his presence begins a chain of events that leads Annie to an exploration of the persecution of the Charterhouse monks in 1535.
Annie looks for information in the symbols Richard Scranton drew in his sixteenth-century map which identifies those monks opposed to Henry’s VIII’s plans in the fourth year of his illicit union to Anne Boleyn. She also links the supernatural events in Bristol House to the truth behind the whereabouts of Giacomo, the Jew of Holborn. Living illegally in England, Giacomo was supposed to have hoarded treasures the knights of the Templars bought back to England from Jerusalem.
The word “dense” characterizes much of this manically-plotted and confusing tale as Swerling dissects Annie’s life, savoring every trace, every insecurity, and her every isolation as Annie is reminded of her twin brother, Ari, who died of AIDS, and his namesake, her thirteen-year-old-son, still alive and well and living Chicago. Annie hasn’t seen Ari since he was three, ever since she emerged from the alcoholic fog that came to characterize the wreckage of much of her life.
Luckily, the arrival of handsome Geoff, a Sir Galahad-like television reporter, can help keep Annie from hitting the bottle. Geoff helps Annie figure out that the ghostly figure was one of the Carthusian
monks. Both Annie and Geoff hold their secrets close, revealing the truth only after Swerling takes us on a long, detailed detour though Germany’s Kristallnacht, Bletchley Park’s German code-breaking circle, the Templars, the machinations of Thomas Cromwell, and a series of Shalom documents that contain a clue vital to unlocking the mystery.
Cluttered and over-wrought, by the time Swerling peels back the very last layers
and exposes Annie’s past, the whole exercise feels in the end like an uneven gear change. Ghosts aside, the only part of the book I could fully commit to was the narrative of Dom Justin, who calls to us from a bleak but blessed antechamber in 1530s, and commanded by his Master Cromwell
to tell of his most grievous sins. By then however, I didn’t care.