I met Ari Berk at the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association annual banquet a few months ago; we shared a table as we each signed 200 copies of our most recent books. He was a great person to have beside me for such a repetitive and time-consuming task, and when he told me about his new YA novel Death Watch, I was instantly intrigued. Now that I’ve finally finished the book (a reflection of my own busy schedule, not the quality of the writing), I can say with all honesty that it’s a great, moving read.
Although it’s the first of a trilogy, Death Watch tells a self-contained story about Silas Umber, a teen whose father doesn’t come home one night. Silas learns that his father was the “Undertaker” for the seaport town of Lichport, a job very different from simply arranging bodies for burial. To discover his father’s fate, Silas takes over the position, learning about Lichport, its inhabitants, and his own devious and untrustworthy uncle. To help accomplish this, he uses his father’s unique tool of the trade, the titular timepiece: when you stop its hands, you can see the spirit world.
Lichport is a sort of Lovecraftian Innsmouth Lite, where the supernatural is accepted as part of daily life. Just because someone’s dead doesn’t mean they don’t hang around, both literally as re-animated corpses, or more figuratively as ghosts. Yet the dead are objects of sympathy, not terror, and the Undertaker’s job is to help them find whatever peace awaits them.
This is a dense and detailed book, but you never get bogged down. And Silas is a wonderful protagonist: decent, tortured, trying to do the right thing but prey to the same doubts and fears as the rest of us, magnified by his growing knowledge of the afterlife. His courtship of Bea, the one girl in town who seems to like him that way, is touching in his acceptance of a relationship that, to put it mildly, has difficulties.
Berk tells the story in clear, clean prose that doesn’t shy from attempting the poetic. Usually he succeeds, as with this passage about the ghost of a child:
A child sits by the tree on the playground. Every day it is the same. He sits by the tree. He does not look up anymore. No one comes for him. He can no longer remember what he is waiting for or how long he’s been waiting. There is only the tree and the cold earth below him and the voices calling out from the yard, but they never once say his name.
And my favorite line: “Honest error may play prologue to wonders.” (p. 229)
The overriding emotions here are sorrow and loss, but this is far from a depressing book. Instead it reinforces the importance of memory, of keeping those you love close, and of trying to help others, both living and dead. And although it resolves all the plot issues it raises, it also leaves plenty of options for the rest of the trilogy. Death Watch is a great book, and I can’t wait for the second volume.
Watch for an interview with Ari Berk, coming soon.