The Library at Mount Char
Somewhere–I wish I could remember where–I read about The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins, and put it on my wish list, where my friends Ben and Carol found it and bought it for me. I had to ask them almost immediately if they knew it took only twelve pages in this book before someone was brought back from the dead. Twelve. And then it keeps happening.
But the book is not what I thought. It is not what you think, whatever you think when you start it. It is bigger and weirder than that. By the time you feel like you’re starting to grasp the importance of the characters and the size of the universe, the story is over and you’re just getting to know the meaning of the title.
We’re introduced to Father and the Library by Carolyn, who is studying languages there. Her “catalog” is languages, just as her colleague Jennifer’s catalog is healing, including bringing the dead back to life. Among the others we meet are David, who studies war, and Michael, who studies animals. As Jennifer demonstrates by bringing another colleague, Margaret, back to life on page twelve, these are no ordinary “librarians.“
As the story unfolds, we find that Father is missing and the librarians have been exiled from the Library. They are living among “the Americans,” some of whom have been reanimated to take care of the suburban housing development in the neighborhood of the library. Jennifer tells Carolyn the story of one of them, a woman who cooks for them named Mrs. McGillicutty. She explains that her son left home when his father couldn’t accept his homosexuality and that is why she makes brownies every few days:
“She thinks that if her son were to come home now it would be like waking from a dream. She would feel again. But the boy will not come home, and though she will not allow herself to know this, she knows it anyway. And so she makes brownies for the memory of her baby.”
We meet Steve and then Erwin, who seem to be thugs at first, and who Carolyn hires to help her do something that seems shady and undefined.
We find out why Carolyn and her colleagues have studied so hard: “The last time she missed a question, Father gave her ten lashes.” We also find out more about what they have been studying: “For a year or so Father had been murdering Margaret two or three times a week….When she was dead she’d usually spend a day or two in the forgotten lands practicing whatever lesson was next in her catalog. Then Father would resurrect her.” The librarians are expressly forbidden from reading or trying to learn anything outside their own assigned catalogs.
The story begins to come together at last on p. 245, with a chapter in which Carolyn herself wakes up from the dead and we find out that she has been reading outside her catalog. She has a confrontation with David in which he guesses that she killed Father right before she defeats David himself. Steve and Erwin turn out to play a bigger role in Carolyn’s takeover of the library than anyone might have expected, and the surprises just keep coming until Carolyn brings Father back from the dead. They have an amiable conversation, one infinitely powerful being to another, and then Carolyn sets about repairing some of what she has done to the world and recovering a few of her childhood memories, including why the library is on “Mount Char.”
Reading this book is a wild ride from start to finish; I didn’t even mention the battle with lions and dogs, David’s peculiar clothing, or the recurring suburban barbecue grill theme.
Read it, and make sure that someone else you know has read it so you can talk about it afterwards. Above all, come back here and talk about it with me!