I came across Bethlehem by Karen Kelly on IndieBound while slumping away from a string of “high concept” historical women’s fiction that (to put it plainly) lacked the depth of human emotion I crave from a story. Without knowing what to expect, I dove in. Karen Kelly’s new book was a sweet relief, in the form of a dual-timeline of old family drama.
Finally. This was what I’d been hoping for! Were the stakes high? No. Was I lured in by the promise of danger and ruin? No. And yet, Bethlehem excited me more than the last five or six novels I’ve picked up. This surprisingly succinct story reveals its colorful layers gracefully, the lush prose and carefully planted microtension leading the reader deeper into the rich life of two wealthy American families—the Colliers and Parrishes.
It begins in the summer of 1962, with what might be considered a slow and meandering look at a gothic cemetery, watched by the quirky Doe, and her grandson Daniel. As the two family trees are spread before us, we’re treated to the sometimes creepy descriptions of a graveyard that seems almost to be too much, until one reads on to discover that these emerald mounds and lichened headstones are indeed the foundation for all that will eventually unfold.
“...the impalpable graces of autumn were weaving their magic, and she pushed the morbid speculation out of her head with a deep, luxuriating sigh. The warmth of the fading sun on an early October afternoon and the smell of drying leaves had an ethereal effect on her, bringing forth a sublime feeling of nostalgic longing--soft and sweet and sad--combined with a thrilling, unspecified anticipation.”
I love a gothic tale, and this one had plenty of the classic elements, with short, bright descriptions, like the tiny grave of “Baby Hayes”, a sinister tramp camp rumored to cook “kid stew”, and a dinner time lesson on the German Reformation. Each of these seems disconnected from the next, and yet together build a heavy landscape of unrest.
The second narrative, taking place in the early 1920s, provides a brightness that’s lacking from the other. Here, the characters we know are younger, livelier. It’s my opinion that good characters absolutely make a story—no matter the blurbabilty of the concept—and the characters of Bethlehem are a prime example. They live on the page, with deep histories and voices that give them a pulse. The women especially shine, each with dreams and hopes that are held up beside the harsh realities of their lives, to reveal incredibly human flaws that make them relatable and somehow heroic.
“Joanna was touched by the comment. It was possibly the most personal thing she had ever heard from her mother-in-law. Susannah Parrish Collier didn’t have a self-pitying bone in her body, and Joanna had never heard her utter a whimper about her widowhood. Now she realized something; the fact that some skin doesn’t show scars does not mean there haven’t been wounds.”
In the end, a harrowing twist sends the whole, gilded landscape crashing to the ground, and in these wretched moments of every day tragedy, our characters learn what’s really important to them. The Colliers and Parrishes once again find where they belong in the town of Bethlehem.
So, I liked the book. A lot. Karen Kelly gets so much right about emotion and family—both blood and not. Each element of the story, from structure to descriptions to prose, work together towards a single purpose. Bethlehem is moving and intoxicating, full of heart, and lingers long after you close it.
Courtney Ellis is an editor for Timeworn Literary Journal. Fueled by Yorkshire Tea and blind ambition, she writes historical fiction. She sometimes peeks at Twitter.