Reviewed by Emma Crowley
An angel gets its wings…
Belle has taken all the Christmas decorations down. This year they won’t be celebrating.
As foster parents, Belle and Jim have given many children the chance of a happier start in life. They’ve loved them as if they were their own. They shouldn’t have favourites but little Lauren has touched their hearts. And now her mother is well enough to take her back and Belle can’t bear the loss.
Hence, Christmas is cancelled.
So when Jim crashes his car one icy December night, after an argument about Lauren, Belle can only blame herself. Everything she loves is lost. And Belle finds herself standing on The Ha’Penny Bridge wishing she had never been born.
But what happens to a Christmas wish when an angel is listening…
Will Belle realise, before it’s too late, that her life is the most wonderful life of all?
I'm almost shamed to say that Every Time a Bell Rings is the first book I have read by Carmel Harrington, her debut Beyond Grace's Rainbow is patiently sitting in my T.B.R. pile. Carmel can almost be considered a neighbour as she lives in Wexford, the county beside where I am from and after reading this remarkably brilliant book I am so proud to discover another amazing Irish author. A woman who is flying the flag for Irish women's fiction and doing an amazing job if this book is anything to go by. I know fellow friends on Twitter were always raving about Carmel's books especially Sophie but for some reason I hadn't gotten round to reading one of her books. This sounds awful but in a way now I am glad, simply because I now have her first two books to fall back on and savour as we await the fourth. I am now a firmly committed Carmel Harrington fan and can see what all the fuss was about and for once all the hype and good things I had heard were totally true.
Every Time a Bell Rings has a simple yet beautiful cover inspired by a very famous bridge in Dublin City called The Ha'Penny Bridge. This does play a significant role in the book and the further descriptions of various landmarks around Dublin City centre will inspire many memories for those living in Ireland. The cover may seem lovely and Christmassy but trust me there is such a range of depth and emotion within the pages of this book that at first glance at the cover you would not think possible. This story is truly stunning and you really get the feeling that Carmel poured her heart and soul into the writing of this book. Her characters are so well rounded although not without their faults and to dedicate a storyline to fostering was new and not before its time. I appreciated every aspect of the story and really didn't want this one to end.
Inspired by the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life (again a film I have not seen) Every Time a Bell Rings follows Belle and Jim as we first meet them on Christmas Eve in 2005. Belle is introducing Jim to her Christmas Eve tradition of visiting familiar landmarks in Dublin. They stop at the famous Ha'Penny bridge where Jim proposes and even though it has only been three weeks since they met Belle feels that Jim is her destiny, that they were always meant to be together through the good times and bad weathering every storm that comes their way. But is it really such a short time since they first met? From here we flash back to December 1988, an 8 year old Belle is once again being taken to another foster home, she is lonely, afraid and seeks solace in her doll Dee Dee. Belle has not had the best of starts in life, born to a woman who despises her and regularly leaves her alone in a flat. Forced to fend for herself, Belle believes she is unlovable and doesn't deserve to be happy. Now she is being placed with yet another foster mother - Tess but will she be like all the others or is there a unique and life lasting bond about to be formed?
I loved loved Tess from the start. As a character she was homely and full of life and was the perfect foster mother knowing when to lend an ear to listen or give a hug or just that moment when she needed to step away. Now this is not in the least bit important in terms of the overall book but god the descriptions of the Milk Tray Tess liked to indulge in not to mention the fries she regularly cooked for Tess and Jim were simply mouthwatering and had me craving a fry the entire time I was reading the book. Tess does her best to make Belle welcome and soon Belle's wish for a best friend comes true when Jim arrives in a not too dissimilar situation to the one Belle found herself in. A connection is formed and over the next two years an everlasting friendship is formed culminating in Belle's prediction she will one day marry Jim but events conspire to take them apart until they reunite in 2005.
To be honest I hadn't read the blurb for this book and didn't know what to expect other than I had heard other people raving about it. I presumed it would just be the usual run of the mill love story boy meets girl, a few ups and downs and then they get it together. But this was so much much more and after we see the early development of Jim and Belle's relationship the story takes on a whole new level both in terms of character development and the overall plot.
The book moves into a new area as Belle and Jim return the love Tess gave and continues to give them by fostering children themselves. They wish to return the love and kindness shown to them and help make life better for children who deserve so much more than they are getting. Fostering goes well and they build good relationships with the children who enter their home be it on a long or short term basis but one little girl in particular – Lauren catches Belle's heart. So when it is time for her to go back to her mum Belle feels distraught and doesn't want her to go. Clearly there was further issues behind Belle's reluctance and we are given subtle hints to a past event in the couples life. An event which Belle can't let go off and to me this brought out her selfish side in terms of Lauren and also Jim. Jim wanted to move on and start the next stage in their marriage but Belle was reluctant and clinging onto the past and it's traumas. Jim showed such utter devotion and compassion to Belle and truly any woman would want to be married to him. An unexpected, shocking event in the days just before Christmas leads Belle down a path that makes her question everything she thought she knew and to confront just what has been tearing away at her deep inside.
Honestly, in the later stages of the book where everything just went up several gears and I was racing to keep up with the torrent of emotions and events it could really have descended into a farce when the 'magical' element came into play. I admit to being such a sceptic but the brilliance and utter perfection of Carmel's writing carried it off, I won't say any more but these scenes were incredibly well written and had my heart in my mouth as to what the outcome would be. I'm sure these chapters do closely tie in with the film but I'll discover that when I watch it nearer to Christmas. The book wouldn't have been the same without all this taking place and Belle realises how important she actually is and not to let the past and what others may have thought affect how she lives and loves in the present.She is a valuable, inspirational woman who is needed by everyone whose path she crosses or else things may spiral out of control and you really don't want that to happen.
Just a quick mention re the fostering Belle and Jim undertake, I confess to knowing nothing about it nor to having any children myself but Carmel seems to have nailed all the finer details and emotions a foster mother goes though. I felt I understand where Belle and Jim were coming from and the creation of Tess was just such an added bonus to the overall storyline. It was also nice to see fellow Twitter friend Margaret Madden mentioned in the acknowledgements as she does such incredible work along with her husband fostering children and I really admire her for that.
It's difficult for a writer to make a bond and friendship which then turns into a relationship come across so well especially considering the pair in question first met when they were eight. But Carmel with her unbelievable writing does just that. Belle and Jim are a couple that you wont forget in a hurry for their unique connection that carries them through the toughest times life can throw at any person. Neither of them are perfect by any stretch of the imagination and that makes them all the more realistic and that makes you invest your time in their story. They both have a shared link through the absence of their mothers but Tess brings them together. Maybe if they had not found each other things cold have been very different for an awful lot of people?
I really got an awful lot more from this read than I had first anticipated. There is just so much to take from this creative, fresh and inspirational story. The quotes alone at the beginning of every chapter made you stop and think. Each was well researched and placed at just the appropriate time and place in the story.So much went into each and every character, every line, every action had such meaning and relevance to the overall story.I did at some points think why is so and so here and why are they getting a bit more attention than I felt justified but no Carmel knew what she was doing and every person had their role to play in helping Belle and Jim. This book undoubtedly deserves a reread (I don't say this lightly as I generally feel there are so many fantastic books out there waiting to be read) as you will take even more away the second time around from the beautiful, deep emotive writing. There is just so much to soak up and digest and put to use in our own lives. I really didn't want Every Time a Bell Rings to end and read it over several hours (only reluctantly stopping to bring the dog out I had to give into those eyes) as I was totally lost in this riveting, consuming story. It really did build up to a blinder of a conclusion and affirmed for me you really do control your own destiny and not anyone else.
In a Q&A at the end Carmel mentions how 'I wanted readers to get a fresh and different approach to how one person finds out how much he or she can impact the world. I hope I did it justice'. Carmel you certainly did it justice and much much more.