The Ninth Circle by Alex Bell
Reviewed by Tanya Brown
On a hot day in August a man regains consciousness in a small, run-down apartment. There's blood on the floor and a blank place where his memory should be. On the kitchen table is a cardboard box stuffed with a fortune in foreign banknotes. He recognises the view from the window—he's in Budapest—but not the view in the mirror. He wonders whether he is dead.
In a drawer beside the bed he discovers a journal, empty save for his name inside the front cover. He begins to write down everything that he can remember, everything that befalls him ...
Gradually Gabriel Antaeus, the protagonist of Alex Bell's The Ninth Circle, rediscovers his identity, piecing it together from circumstantial evidence and from the clues that a mysterious benefactor has deliberately left for him. He's an Englishman of independent means, living alone in Budapest after the death of his wife and child in a car crash. He's physically strong and brave; intellectually capable, too, if the manuscript he finds in his desk is anything to go by. Entitled Dante's Hell: A Theological Study, it purports to be an in-depth account of the structure of Hell. Gabriel mocks its "wild and unsubstantiated theories," but he's secretly pleased to discover that he's a writer. His is a lonely life, though, and he's starved for company. He longs for somebody to talk to, someone who can help him rediscover his identity.
His wish is granted. Whilst visiting an ancient church, Gabriel encounters Zadkiel Stephomi, a young Italian scholar, and they fall easily into friendship. Stephomi is sympathetic, irreverent and iconoclastic. Though he can't, or won't, help Gabriel to recover his lost memories, his companionship boosts Gabriel's confidence, to the extent that he befriends his neighbour, pregnant teenager Casey. Casey, like Gabriel, is alone in the world (save for her nine year old brother Toby), and Gabriel finds himself wanting to protect her—though it's not entirely clear what she needs to be protected from.
The layers of revelation are handled well, and the reader's often a step or two ahead of Gabriel as he rejoices over his latest discovery. Eager to rebuild his life, Gabriel is almost too ready to believe each new revelation, each twist in his tale: his credulity leads him to skim over the details that don't quite fit into place. Sometimes he seems almost wilfully stupid, ignoring Stephomi's self-contradictions and veiled allusions: at other times it's easier to sympathise with his desperate need to make sense of what is happening around him.
There's a lot to make sense of. Gabriel saves a woman from muggers, but she never acknowledges his presence. Casey claims that her baby has no father, and that she hasn't had a boyfriend since she was fourteen. A dying child recites a message about the Ninth Circle, who have taken everything from Gabriel. Stephomi gives Gabriel his card, but it's destroyed by a burning man from a dream. A beautiful dark-haired woman also haunts Gabriel's dreams, but she is not his lost wife. In Gabriel's Budapest, the mysterious and the mundane intersect, and he walks between the two worlds, belonging to neither.
The elements of dark fantasy and of thriller might not mesh as well as they do if Gabriel were fully aware of his situation and his past, but his ignorance—we might almost say innocence—enforces an open-mindedness that allows him to accept the sight of his new best friend being attacked, apparently by a demon, as easily as he accepts that Casey is being hounded by thugs. That acceptance doesn't mean that he doesn't press Stephomi for an explanation of the attack, though. Stephomi reveals that he, like Gabriel, is of the In Between, gifted or cursed with the ability to see "the angelic and demonic realms which overlay our own." Stephomi's abilities, he suggests, may spring from his past as a lecturer on religious philosophy. Gabriel is somehow certain that his own gift has something to do with the Ninth Circle—whether it's the inmost circle of Hell, as his own work argues, or something to be found in the ordinary world of market traders and muggers, of Christmas shopping and tourist bars.
As The Ninth Circle progresses, the layers of reality begin to bleed into one another to such an extent that it's hard to tell whether the focus of the novel is some Miltonian epic of good and evil, or one man's quest to discover the truth about his past. The distinct threads of the plot are woven tightly together but they never quite knit. It's hard to believe that Gabriel is a unique case, and harder still to credit the more mundane elements of his past—unless the Ninth Circle has transformed him more than he can ever comprehend.
The Ninth Circle is a first novel by a young writer, and unfortunately it shows. There's little sense of a distinctive voice, and some descriptive passages feel overwritten and bland. When Gabriel calls on his friend in the aftermath of a supernatural visitation, it takes him some time to become aware that there is anything unusual about his surroundings:
"I had a late night."
And that was when I noticed some of the odd things about the room. There was a great crack down the centre of the large mirror over the dressing table, and strange jagged grooves, almost like clawmarks in the wooden edges of the couch and coffee table as well as ripped tears running down the length of the curtains ... the room had a strangely chilled air. (p. 99)
All the detail's there, but without impact. Conversely, the tone sometimes veers too far towards the melodramatic: Gabriel's discovery that he knew Stephomi pre-amnesia comes as a shock to him, but perhaps not an "awful truth in all its hideous and grotesque reality" (p. 77).
Budapest is a two-dimensional backdrop, a construct of churches and monuments, with neither local colour nor much sense of otherness. Gabriel is not an especially likeable protagonist. He's humourless, and lacks depth and passion: though this might be a result of his amnesia (and his lost past) there's no sense that his previous life was any richer. And Casey only comes to life when she's defending her piercings and dyed hair: "I don't dress like this to hurt my parents or draw attention to myself or make a statement. I just do it because I think it looks nice. Disappointed?" (p. 150)
Flaws aside, though, there's considerable potential and creativity evident in The Ninth Circle. Bell is confident with plot and pacing, and she blends elements of history, legend and theology—Keats, Nostradamus, Raphael, Faust—into a coherent, if occasionally sketchy, secret history. It will be interesting to watch her progress in future works.
Tanya Brown lives in Surrey and has been reading and arguing about books lo these many years.
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