A spare allegory of inquisition, miracle, and redemption.
While not a historical novel, Davis's debut is set in a vague, almost mythic past, after the Christian defeat of Muslim rule in the early Renaissance. The author is not interested in immersing us in historic density, however, but rather working by symbol and suggestion. The characters are either unnamed (the narrator) or given allegorical epithets (the Moor, the Inquisitor, the Factor). The narrator begins by recounting, some 70 years after the event, a boyhood memory of his attraction to the Moor, a charismatic acequero who helped teach Christian settlers how to irrigate the harsh, arid, and mountainous land they inhabit. The Moor has a wealth of lore and narrative to beguile the village children, but he's by definition an outsider--he's also accused of blasphemy after imitating Christ's miracle of walking on water. An Inquisitor shows up to query the villagers, and eventually a show trial occurs in which the Moor is condemned and shortly thereafter executed. Years after this trauma, the boy still feels guilty of betrayal, for he's the one person who had intended to remain loyal to the Moor. Meanwhile, true evil shows up in the physically and morally deformed Factor, who is employed by the local monastery and who keeps pet lambs that he periodically sacrifices in a gruesome manner. He kidnaps the narrator and almost turns him into another sacrificial lamb. The novel concludes lyrically with the narrator returning years later to his village and experiencing a miracle that leads him to realize that "if you choose an existence that lacks illusion and does not convert the clod of being to a thing of wonder and celebration, then you will die before you have ever lived..."
A poetic meditation on guilt and faith. - --Kirkus
The Spanish Inquisition, which instituted mass conversions of Jews to Catholicism and the expulsion of the Moors, was only reluctantly endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, it was largely a political maneuver by Ferdinand V and Isabella to unify the disparate principalities of Spain and push the Ottoman Turks out of the southern regions. This medieval site of religious oppression and political expediency provides the setting of Charles Davis' haunting novel Walk On, Bright Boy, the story of a young boy's friendship with a Moor who is targeted by the Inquisition.
In many ways a gothic novel, Walk On, Bright Boy narrates the moral bildungsroman of a nine-year-old Spaniard, whose horrifying encounters with humanity in the shape of the ruthless Inquisition, a xenophobic community, and a psychopathic tithe collector would seem reason to lose faith altogether. But the novel is also an assertion of spirituality shaped by the traumas of childhood, a Moor's lessons in observing the world, Gnostic thought, and an education through the Catholic Church. The title of the novel is a translated phrase from a novel by medieval Islamic philosopher Ibn Tufayl about a boy who grows up in isolation but discovers the same spiritual truths as the highest authorities in the world.
As the title suggests, the novel is about walking as a vehicle for seeing the world, thinking, becoming part of a landscape, even of narrating experience. From the Moor, the narrator learns the gift of walking in the mountains near their village: walking was a form of storytelling in itself, a way of finding your way through the world. Walking is also an ecological act, for it is a literal engagement with a physical place. The landscape, the narrator says, breathes with the rhythm of your walking, as if conspiring with your progress to create a private perfection of harmony in which there are no barriers between you and the world.
Charles Davis' first novel reflects his own peripatetic travels far from his native England to Sudan, Turkey, Ivory Coast, Spain, and France, and it explores the exhilarations and fears of the engagement with strange geographies and foreign cultures. Notwithstanding the use of ubiquitous Christian imagery, the prose is truly insightful, economical, and almost lyrical in its portrayal of the complexities of human action. A short narrative, Walk On, Bright Boy leaves the reader curious about the implied frame of the novel, a manuscript confession written for the Inquisition.
Despite its setting in medieval Spain, the novel speaks to contemporary collisions of political expediency and religious faith throughout the world. It is a reminder of the complexities of an individual's allegiance to religion, community, nation, and geographic place. (September)
-Keya Kraft --ForeWard Magazine
This beautifully written novella proves less is more. Eloquent and elegant, with stunning metaphors and rhythmic cadences that alternate between short, declarative sentences that expand with ironic meaning and lyrical descriptions of nature that flesh out spiritual resonance, Walk On, Bright Boy invites reading out loud which in many ways is its literary heritage. Whoever you are, Charles Davis, keep at it (a second novel, Walking the Dog is due out next year). It's a good guess, however, that Walk On, Bright Boy a real occasion to use the overworked expression tour de force will remain unique. A suggestion: don't read it straight through. Take it, like good wine, slowly, savoring the taste of its descriptive prose. It is not to be rushed much like walking for pleasure. The experience, not the destination, is all. A second suggestion: if you happen to come across a so-called review of this book in Publishers Weekly toss it.
An unnamed priest, having reached a powerful position in the Church, is dictating his life story to an amanuensis he will not identify, not knowing if his words will be read by the Lords of the Inquisition who will soon take his life. It's not that at 80 the priest has become a Gnostic: He has always been a skeptic of pomp and circumstance. He has never forgotten a traumatic event in his childhood that provided him with a touchstone of how to value truth, justice and beauty, an experience that is at the center of the novel. It will be said that the book is an allegory, a parable, a timeless tale of betrayal and faith, guilt and redemption, compromise and survival, and that its setting, 17th century Spain, invites an anti-clerical reading of the hypocrisy, cruelty and insidious power of organized religion to enforce moral absolutes. But as the narrator says, a story is not only content but language and form. In this regard Walk On, Bright Boy is not just the recollections of a Jesuit priest who feels he betrayed a friend but a poetic celebration of the sensual world that friend introduced him to.
Walk On, Bright Boy, which takes its title from an Arabic text, is about understanding the universe by observing its wonders, especially as these are seen and felt in childhood a time of wonder, magic and exploring, seeking, learning that is all but lost to most adults. An exception proves to be the unconverted Moor who lived in the narrator's aldea, or remote village. The Moor was a harmless, unlettered infidel in a region all but conquered by the Church, a pied piper whose walks into the mountains and along the village waterway delighted the children who followed him, for his tales and tricks. He was, in other words, the perfect scapegoat for Inquisitors would hedge in God with dark ledgers of regulation and a cult of death. Now, decades later, after a long and successful clerical career, the priest confesses, but the Inquisitors, as he sarcastically observes, will not understand. His con-fession is in the etymological sense of the word, keeping faith with the intuitions of his childhood. To the disgust of his parents and fellow villagers he had defended the Moor against the trumped up charge of being a witch, but then was slyly manipulated by a clever Inquisitor into repeating words that inadvertently condemned the Moor to death.
Davis infuses his narrative with local color (Spanish words remain untranslated), suspense and unexpected complexity (pathology in the guise of religious zeal). If the ending seems a bit obvious, about the ultimate importance of friendship, loving kindness and devotion, the message is encased in such fine writing that the story telling eclipses the story which is the book's theme.
reviewed by Joan Baum --The Independent