CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 40. . . .June 17, 2011.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2011.
289 pp., pbk., $14.95.
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Todd Kyle.
I saw the crowd lean forward when the ladder was moved again. I felt the morbid excitement, the fear, the fascination. What would happen when Savonarola was flung off the ladder to his death? Some whispered that he would take wing, like an angel. Others claimed the devilís hand would reach up from hell and drag him down. Still others said that when the firewood was set alight the famous friar would learn what hell was like.
The hangman mockingly swept his hand up, inviting Savonarola to mount the ladder. The friar, his body twisted by the strappado, awkwardly climbed onto the lowest rung, his leg irons hindering ascent to the top. The hangman fixed his noose in place and looped the chain around the friarís wrist.
ďOh, prophet,Ē a voice rang out from the crowd, ďnow is the time for you to work one of your miracles!Ē
Young adult Garnet, who also appeared in Bellís novel Stones, decides to go into business for himself making furniture, and he leases a workshop on the Corbizzi estate outside of Orillia, ON. The late Professor Corbizziís lifelong companion, Mrs Stoppini, gives him a deal on one condition: that he restore the damage done to the professorís library by the fire in which the professor died. Garnet and his girlfriend, Raphaella, soon discover that the library is haunted by the ghost of Girolamo Savonarola, an infamous Renaissance-era friar and religious fanatic who was burned at the stake by the Pope. Noting that Corbizzi had just completed a book about the friar before he died, Garnet surmises that the professor was likely killed by his ghost in an attempt to avenge an unsympathetic portrayal. At the same time, Garnet stumbles upon a jihadist training camp in the wilderness and enlists his journalist mother to expose the terrorist plot. Discovering that an ornate cross the professor hid in the library contains a relic of Savonarolaís atlas bone, Garnet and Raphaella rid the library of his presence by burning the relic in a fiery and dangerous encounter.
Fanatics is a complex and well-researched book that touches on a timely theme, that is, the suffering caused by people with rigid, intolerant religious beliefs. The description of the professorís life and work, the ghostís attempts to destroy his manuscript to save his legacy, Garnetís vivid dreams of Savonarolaís imprisonment and death, and the subtle signs of the ghostís presence Ė a smell of burning wood, even after Garnet repairs the damage Ė are very convincing, not to mention absorbing. The sense of place, both of central Ontario and the professorís native Italy, the portrayal of a young man leaving his teen years behind, and the stern yet caring Mrs Stoppini, are all notable, if not highly engaging.
But the attempt to link Savonarola to modern-day Islamic terrorists, while understandable, is a little bit awkwardly done. So, too, is Bellís attempt to ensure that Garnet, while voicing his disgust with religious fanaticism, notes that (obviously) not all Muslims are extremists. In fact, while the afterword admits that the terrorist subplot was based on the recent events of the so-called Toronto 18 (here they are the Severn Eleven, named after the waterway on which their camp is located), there is something to Garnetís opining on the matter that sounds too much like an echo of the authorís viewpoint. If it werenít for the surprise that Raphaella is pregnant at the end, it might also seem that Garnet is too perfect, more the authorís wish of a responsible young man than a true channelling of a modern youth. Still, the suspense is well-constructed, and the questions raised by the theme are bound to resound with thoughtful older teens.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario and a member of the board of directors of the Canadian Childrenís Book Centre.
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