The first sentence of Michael Bible’s latest novel, The Ancient Hours, is a lie. “We were innocent,” is an immediate provocation that gives the impression of someone in an interrogation room telling authorities a story agreed upon by a group of accomplices.
Bible makes a bold statement beginning with this line, and also by never returning to this first-person plural point of view. Both jarring and compelling, it draws a dark cloud over the characters from the outset, and forces readers to hold their breath and wait for the lightning to strike. Readers later learn that the “we” represents a specific group of friends who have a relationship with Iggy, the perpetrator of the tragedy that rocks the town of Harmony. Bible sets the tone by encapsulating the horror of Iggy setting fire to a church from the perspective of the people inside. Iggy walks calmly to the middle of the sanctuary and attempts to light himself on fire with matches and gasoline while the congregation is bowed in prayer. The survivors of the fire are changed forever, while Iggy seems to be quietly unmoved by the great loss, a concept that forces readers to reckon with and question his evil through the other characters throughout the text.
What’s most remarkable about Bible’s approach is the trust he builds with his audience. The language is matter-of-fact and as stilted as a police report. Details of Iggy’s odd behavior as a child on a field trip and the actual fatal tragedy are delivered with a familiar distant tone. But Bible only spends a couple of short chapters in this perspective, before shifting to first person.
The majority of the book is presumably from Iggy’s prison journal leading up to his execution. It is through Iggy that Bible flexes an entirely different set of muscles. Iggy is complex—terrifying and immature, but profound in a way that seems intentionally in direct opposition to his tragic act. What is interesting about what Iggy has to say, is that he is more willing to talk about everything except his crime. He speaks on his polyamorous love life and the tragic death of one of his partners. He speaks longingly about witnessing the falling blossoms of the tree visible through his prison cell window. The last blossom to fall would be “the final good thing on earth.”
It is important to Iggy that he not be perceived as one horrific thing, but also someone who is directly connected to beauty. He expresses his desire for that beauty often, never more so than when he learns from a corrections officer that the cell he will be staying in during his final week will not have a window. Bible is doing more than simply humanizing a criminal, he manages to make Iggy someone to empathize with, while understanding that he will not be forgiven.
Bible continues with the remainder of the novel focusing on other Harmony residents affected by the fire, both directly and tangentially. Farber, while at work at the library, develops a short-lived yet substantial connection with Cleo, Iggy’s former lover, and her child Carolina who has wandered away and caused a panic. Farber is joined in the search by his boss Trudy, who was once a guardian of Iggy and savior to a baby named Joe who nearly succumbed to the fire.
It is during this section of the novel where the idea of connection becomes more recognizable as the novel’s throughline. Not simply the spider web of connections between the characters and their relationship to Iggy and the fire in Harmony, but also the concept of connection to other people and the fragility of relationships as a whole. Unfortunately, Cleo is not given enough time on the page to truly flourish and become more than the shadow of a character cast by Iggy and Farber. If nothing else, she may have been someone worth spending more time with to discover her desires including what drew her to Iggy.
The final section of the novel shifts back to first-person from the perspective of the now-adult Joe. His parents were killed in the fire, and there was a level of traumatic residue he continues to deal with that he articulates in a lovely way, particularly while recalling a time with a summer fling, Al:
“Life gets mixed up for me. Twisted and turned. My surest summer memories lose their leaves and the green yards of my recollections become white with fresh snow. What I do remember is one night we talked about the town and how we both wanted to move up north someday as she drove me in her Dad’s muscle car down to the dry river bed, her hot hand on my thigh, listening to Thin Lizzy.”
The Ancient Hours, in its purest form, is a story about the quest for family and what people are willing to sacrifice, both internally and externally, to achieve some semblance of community. The irony of the town name will not be lost on readers, but Bible’s unique voice makes the story of a tragedy in Harmony a successful journey toward healing and community.
The Ancient Hours
By Michael Bible
Melville House Publishing
Published December 8, 2020