After turning the last page of this book, my first thought was “what the hell did I just read?” This book isn’t a light read. If you rush through it, you might miss the point or at least a passage that might mean something to you if you take the time to digest it. Downes’ Fell of Dark is meant to be read carefully and be savoured for its beauty and horror.
It follows two young boys. One named Erik and the other named Thorn. Erik was abducted as a child not long after his father died. As he grows older, he performs miracles and grows into a giant, standing at almost eight feet when he finally meets Thorn. After he performs his first miracle and sees blood on his palms that no one else can see, he decides to keep an oath of silence and gives up his friends. Erik’s narrative is addressed to the wife he feels he’s destined to meet. He also reads the Bible in Latin and considers himself “a martyr waiting for [his] holy death.” Meanwhile, Thorn is bullied at school and his parents have been abusing him since his sister died. He is tormented by voices in his head: the “growls and grunts and whining saws” of Sawmen, Guardians, and the Architect who direct his actions and reactions. Teenagers Erik and Thorn are destined to meet and have a disastrous first encounter.
Both characters are highly intelligent boys, their lives are filled with tragedy and abuse—real, imagined, or exaggerated. If you’re a deep thinker, this book is for you. Fell of Dark gives sophisticated readers a glimpse into the psyches and madness of both characters. The author works with language and metaphor wonderfully, exploring the dualities of sanity/insanity, beauty/ugliness, voice/voicelessness in a chilling echo of real incidents of school violence.
There are a ton of topics mentioned in this book: everything from life and death, love and hate, belief and non-belief, and the list goes on. What I thought was interesting was the constant referral to Christ and the Devil. Overtime, readers make a connection that Erik is like Jesus. He performs miracles, he is protective, and he even sees blood on his hands as if he was nailed on the cross. There’s even a scene in the novel where he lays down in the sign of the cross on the porch of a beach house after a swim. Erik is perceived as the hero or savior of the story early on. Despite Thorn’s rough childhood and readers feeling sympathy for him, he eventually is the villain of the story. He often says his parents are demons and he hears nasty voices in his head. The boys are like a modern day Jesus and Satan.
I also love stories that get me to do a bit of research after. I wanted to know more about the book. Most reviewers don’t seem to quite understand the story either, so I looked into what the title may mean. I found this: I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day Summary. Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Christian poet, wrote the poem “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day,” which is the inspiration of the title of this novel.
Hopkins explores the theme of exile from God, the alienation and doubt that all believers feel at times. These feelings tend to lead to self-loathing, because it is the human self that stands as a barrier to permanent union with God.
In “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day,” the poet awakens in the dark, implicitly awaiting the light of day. The word “fell,” however, indicates that this is more than a literal awakening in the night. A fell is the hide, or pelt, of a dead animal. His feeling the fell of dark suggests imprisonment in an animal body and the desire to escape into a “body of light.”
In the rest of the first quatrain of this modified Italian sonnet, the poet addresses his heart, lamenting the “black hours” they have spent, the terrors they have experienced together in this seemingly endless night. In the second quatrain, he says that he has been speaking metaphorically, that where he has said hours he means years. In fact, his whole life has been lived in the dark of separation from God, yearning for the light of final union. All of his prayers to God have been like dead letters, sent to one who is distant. Dead letters are not delivered and may be returned to the sender.
This explanation of the poem was super helpful to at least understand Downes’ novel. He must had done quite a bit of research. The author seems to be talking about religion without being preachy about it. He even makes references to the Vikings’ gods and possible reincarnation. While I’m not religious, the author allows readers to question their own beliefs. It would also seem that both characters are so overwhelmed with their abilities, and what they do know and what they don’t know that they’re looking for some kind of escape. Like the poem, they wish to escape their human skin, like a prison, and to be freed by it in death, perhaps to return to God and finally be at peace.
I’ve always love to think critically, looking for the deeper meaning of things, especially in books. Mind you, I’m still puzzled about the story itself. But the experience of just reading it was amazing—the writing is beautiful and the pace is just right for a smooth journey through the story. And I’m not saying my interpretation of the story is right either. I think everyone’s experience reading this book will be different. A passage might strike a chord with you more or it might provoke new thoughts that you haven’t considered before. We’re thinking, curious creatures and it’s always healthy to keep asking questions. I believe the whole point of Downes’ Fell of Dark is to simply reflect and feel okay about asking the bigger questions even if they don’t come with answers.
*Disclosure: An advance reading copy was provided from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions within this review are solely my own, not that of the publisher or the author.