Readers of my first novels will know that the Czech and Slovak history is of great interest to me. Soon after I released my WW2 drama “The Luck of the Weissensteiners“, set in that area,
I was introduced to blogger and writer Victoria Dougherty via a mutual friend, MCV Egan (also a prolific blogger and historical writer, “The Bridge of Death“).
Victoria is the daughter of political refugees from Prague, and although born in the US, she has lived in the city and has many connections to the place. Her blog “Cold” echoes history, the Cold War and Central and Eastern European sentiment. My family has similar connections, which is why I was over the moon when over a year later Victoria finally released her first novel “The Bone Church” set in Prague.
In the surreal and paranoid underworld of wartime Prague, fugitive lovers Felix Andel and Magdalena Ruza make some dubious alliances – with a mysterious Roman Catholic cardinal, a reckless sculptor intent on making a big political statement, and a gypsy with a risky sex life. As one by one their chances for fleeing the country collapse, the two join a plot to assassinate Hitler’s nefarious Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Josef Goebbels. But the assassination attempt goes wildly wrong, propelling the lovers in separate directions. Felix’s destiny is sealed at the Bone Church, a mystical pilgrimage site on the outskirts of Prague, while Magdalena is thrust even deeper into the bowels of a city that betrayed her and a homeland soon to be swallowed by the Soviets. As they emerge from the shadowy fog of World War II, and stagger into the foul haze of the Cold War, Felix and Magdalena must confront the past, and a dangerous, uncertain future.
This week I travelled to Prague to see the bone church (and meet said ladies, MCV Egan and Victoria Dougherty) as Victoria was giving a talk about her book at the English language book store “The Globe” .
The Bone Church is one of the most bizarre buildings one can imagine. An hour from Prague by train “The Sedlec Ossuary” is a small Roman Catholic chapel, located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora. The ossuary is estimated to contain the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, whose bones have in many cases been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel.
Four enormous bell-shaped mounds occupy the corners of the chapel. An enormous chandelier of bones, which contains at least one of every bone in the human body, hangs from the center of the nave with garlands of skulls draping the vault. Other works include piers and monstrances flanking the altar, a large Schwarzenberg coat of arms, and the signature of Rint, also executed in bone, on the wall near the entrance. [Wikipedia]
but – as featured in Victoria’s book – the church has a different feel as well. The theme of mass graves and bones at the same time as the Holocaust is something rather harrowing and something that brings gravity to the life of the characters who really just try to get on with their lives and survive the war.
I cannot recommend the book enough. Seeing the church has re-ignited my love for the book and its wonderful atmospheric writing. Here is my review
“The Bone Church” by Victoria Dougherty is a gripping and atmospheric historical thriller that intelligently weaves two narratives into one another: One is set in 1956 and involves a rescue mission to get a woman out of Czechoslovakia, aided by the Vatican while another plot line is set in German-occupied Moravia and Prague during WW2.
Both plots involve Magdalena, a Jewish woman, and her gentile husband Felix, under-ground hiding and resistance fighters, an assassination plot. The suspense will keep you close to the edge of your seat. The book is both, entertaining with its dramatic curve, and also educational and insightful for those of us who have only basic knowledge of life in Czechoslovakia during and especially after WW2.
Dougherty skilfully portrays life and its difficulties for Jews, Czechs and gypsies under the Nazis with excellently drawn characters, while also providing some lesser known facts and historical events in Czechia and Slovakia; in particular a show trial in 1952 really showed me how little I knew about the post-war period.
Although the level of suspense is always high in the rewarding way of great underground spy thrillers, it never loses sight of the seriousness of the times.
The bone church of the title is a small Roman Catholic chapel in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic and contains artistically arranged bones from skeletons to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel. Its symbolism and function as returning focal point for the story contributes to the artful and ever so stylish canvass that the author is painting on.
Dougherty has a sharp and observing mind that can quickly draw a picture, scene or a character with only a few well-chosen words and attributes, but her descriptions go beyond bare skeletons and show how well-researched the book is and how competent the writing.
Her understanding of the human psyche makes her characters either likeable or laughable but always memorable. Her dry sense of humour and wit liven the novel in a welcomed, understated way. Corruption and underhand dealings are seen for what they are, as is naivety. It is hard to pitch irony in a serious novel but the author has done a perfect job at it.
The writing is authentic, stylish, realistic and very addictive.
The event at the Globe was so popular that the shop ran out of copies of the book. It was my first time meeting Victoria and MCV Egan, a very special treat and a great meeting of minds. Victoria read a powerful passage from the book and then shared with us some of her family history. Her father being present and filling in the gaps with his memories was an unbeatable experience. Victoria is a writer and a voice to watch. Get her book on
AMAZON US or AMAZON UK.
MCV Egan wrote about a passenger plane that went down by a Danish bridge, shortly before WW2 began. Another phenomenal historical read, find it on AMAZON US or AMAZON UK. Beware, if you should ever meet either of these two ladies – their energy is highly infectious and should come with a health warning.