Finding a Way Forward: A Review of The Door on Half-Bald Hill

By

And the wrens have returned and they’re nesting
In the hollow of that oak where his heart once had been
And he lifts up his arms in a blessing for being born again”
— Rich Mullins, “The Color Green”

Rich Mullins wasn’t writing about Corann, the Druid, from Helena Sorensen’s The Door on Half-Bald Hill, but he could have been. In fact, it’s about halfway through the novel that the wrens leave, and hope along with them.

There’s just no way around it: the days we occupy right now are filled with uncertainty. It’s what takes up space in our minds and in our conversations. It’s what sets us at each other’s throats and, somehow, unites us. We’ve got no idea what the future holds and, on many days, it seems like what’s to come won’t be pleasant. How long will this last? What’s the next thing coming? Where do we look for leadership? How do we find the way forward? And, above all, where do we look for hope?

The best fantasy novels are beyond or outside time. They have the prescience and authenticity to feel at home in any era they’re read, despite whatever combination of futuristic and ancient trappings they may have. But they also feel urgent, like they’re happening right now. They take what’s time-tested, remove it from a time we know, and turn it into universal truth.

Helena Sorensen’s new novel, The Door on Half-Bald Hill, is such a novel. In the world of Baileléan created by Sorensen, a fantasy world inspired in part by Irish fairy tales, legends, and lore, the people are dying. Since the last Bloodmoon, the water has become poisonous and is spreading all across the land, slowly overtaking all the crops and livestock. The people persist in the old ways, looking to their Druids, their high priests, for salvation, but the Druids cannot divine the source of the darkness. Instead, it’s the Ovate, Zinerva, who brings a message back from the other side. Her message? “Do not fear death. Embrace it as a friend, as a lover. It waits to return your embrace.” In other words, stop trying to save yourselves and, instead, find freedom in the darkness. But Idris, the bard, the ollamh, the hero of our story, searches through the old tales for the answer. Idris is the keeper of the Word. He is the one that remembers. But how can he be victorious over death when “the ollamh carries no weapon. He has only the Word”?

In describing the world she’s created, Sorenson’s prose is plaintive and mournful. And while it’s never verbose or flowery, her descriptions of the physical world are intricately wrought, and they carry the weight of the people’s sadness. The characters’ conversations are agonizingly terse, speaking only what is necessary, and their sparseness is pregnant with doubt. The effect of all of this is that, by the climax of the story, we feel as burdened as the people we’ve come to care for.

Sorensen also doesn’t provide us with an elaborate mythology, even though there is obviously one at work. Instead, we are begged to fill in the gaps for ourselves, and our mind’s eyes are allowed to run wild. In a masterful work of writing, Sorensen’s prose calls to mind Cormac McCarthy and his direct, to-the-point style. For writers like these, the best way to evoke imagination in the reader is by letting them do the work for you.

Sorensen’s is the very best kind of prose. It’s the kind of prose that augments and illustrates what’s happening through its very style. When we’re granted description, it’s to describe what’s been lost. Mentions of beautiful things are there to tell us what’s missing, not what is in abundance. We feel the starkness and destitution of the land by virtue of how Sorensen tells it, not merely by what she says about it. In that, it reads like poetry—not particularly poetic language, but the style informing the substance. This is a novel that will reward a second or third read.

The Door on Half-Bald Hill begins the way all great fantasy begins. . . with a door. Where does the door go? What’s on the other side? How do we get through? Well, you’ll have to journey along with Idris to find out, but the payoff is worth the trip. In Lev Grossman’s (author of the modern fantasy novels The Magicians Trilogy) analysis of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he says:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a powerful illustration of why fantasy matters in the first place. Yes, the Narnia books are works of Christian apology, works that celebrate joy and love—but what I was conscious of as a little boy, if not in any analytical way, was the deep grief encoded in the books. Particularly in the initial wardrobe passage. There’s a sense of anger and grief and despair that causes Lewis to want to discard the entire war, set it aside in the favor of something better. You can feel him telling you—I know it’s awful, truly terrible, but that’s not all there is. There’s another option. Lucy, as she enters the wardrobe, takes the other option. I remember feeling this way as a child, too. I remember thinking, “Yes, of course there is. Of course this isn’t all there is. There must be something else.”

—Lev Grossman

In Half-Bald Hill, we’re introduced to the door in the prologue, but we aren’t allowed to travel through like Lucy did. Instead, we’re stuck in the war. But it’s not a war fought with violence—it’s a war fraught with hopelessness. Sorensen paints a picture, both vibrant and destitute, of a world stuck in liminal space, waiting for what’s next. The crops are dying. The animals are stillborn. The children are sick. The leaders are answerless. And Idris, the Bard, longs to provide the hope that people are looking for, even if he doesn’t know how. Idris must find the way through and out. But in a time when the old ways are failing, he does not know how.

“Is there anything I can say that will counter Zinerva’s message? Can my words bring any hope at all?” . . . I am the Keeper of the Word. Mine is the right to speak, and the necessity. It does not matter if my words defy the finality of Zinerva’s message. It does not matter if they even soften the blow. I am the ollamh. I must speak.

—Helena Sorensen, The Door on Half-Bald Hill

If you’re lost in a bog of hopelessness; if you’re gazing out the window wondering who is going to lead us through this; if you’re at your wit's end, The Door on Half-Bald Hill is a fire in the cold night. Not only will it fill you with warmth, it will light your way home.

John Barber

And so, in a time when we all feel adrift and uncertain about the future, when we’re wondering what’s coming next, and whether or not things are only going to get worse, Sorensen’s book tells us to look to the storytellers, and, in an Escher-like twist of logic, it’s books like hers that help lead the way through the darkness. Where should we be looking for hope? First, like Idris, we go back to the old, old stories. We remember them as they’ve always been told, and we listen to those who tell them. It would be easy to turn The Door on Half-Bald Hill into an allegory about the gospel, but to do so would be to minimize the artistry at work here. Much like Lewis’ most famous work, the gospel is here, but to limit the application thus would remove the novel’s immediacy. In fact, The Door on Half-Bald Hill is a novel for such a time as this. It’s a story that talks to us right now. If you’re lost in a bog of hopelessness; if you’re gazing out the window wondering who is going to lead us through this; if you’re at your wit’s end, The Door on Half-Bald Hill is a fire in the cold night. Not only will it fill you with warmth, it will light your way home. Look to the storyteller. And in the meantime, join Corann in the hopeful waiting.

“Corann.”
He huffs a sigh and turns to me.
“Will the wren sing to you in the morning?”
“No,” he says. “But I will sit and wait for it all the same.”

—Helena Sorensen, The Door on Half-Bald Hill

John Barber is a music lover, film nut, husband, and father. Last year he set out to watch 365 films in one year, and he lived to tell about it. That means he's seen more bad movies than we even want to think about.


5 Comments

  1. Matthew Cyr

    @matthewcyr

    Yes, Yes, Yes, and Yes. Excellent review, John, of a book begging to be looked at long and intently and then lavishly described. Thank you once again to Helena and to the Rabbit Room for making this book happen. Years from now, 2020 won’t just be the year we lived through a pandemic – it’ll be the year we read The Door On Half-Bald Hill for the first time.

  2. Abigail

    Is this book part of a series or a stand alone novel? I’m keen to read it, but don’t want to miss the backstory. Thanks!

  3. Sofia

    John, you put words to so much that I was sensing in my first reading, but lacking words for! This is especially true for what you said about the poetic nature of the book’s structure. Now onto my second reading…

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