The Grave Listeners

The Grave Listeners by William Frank

Book Reviewed by Timea Barabas

While The Grave Listeners is just a brief incursion into life in a mystical medieval setting, it is a memorable visit. William Frank creates a strangely familiar yet distant world in which we cannot feel welcome but are tempted to linger as outside observers. The author answers the call by granting us a look at a whirlwind of events from an outsider’s vantage point.  Purchase Here.

The main character, Volushka, is the village’s grave listener. More than simply being his chosen profession, this is his birthright. The gift of listening to the dead was passed down in his family through generations. While a seemingly noble profession (given that it protects the living and the dead alike), Volushka is despised by most villagers.

As the story unfolds, William Frank reveals more details about the tools of the trade, and the reader becomes increasingly more familiar with what grave listening should truly be. While this vocation is intriguing, to me, the most entrancing aspect of the short novel is the social dynamic between Volushka and the villagers.

The relationship between the people and the outcast is elastic, it snaps when stretched, and the atmosphere is often tense. Although they keep Volushka in contempt, the villagers also need him; he is a seemingly indispensable part of their life. However, the day a stranger walks into the village, everything changes. His presence impacts the entire community and threatens to offer a more socially acceptable alternative to Volushka.

In stark contrast to all of Volushka’s other relationships is the one he cultivates with Benzi. Their interactions are filled with prolonged playful banter. If Volushka is associated with death, the child is a vivid representation of life. Benzi is joyful, lively, innocent, and beloved. While the scenes these two characters share highlight contrasting traits, on occasion, they also reveal some common ground.

This is a story about decay. Social. Personal. Carnal. The Grave Listeners is a daring incursion into an uncomfortable world where innocence does not survive long. This is the author’s first novel after having published numerous books of poetry. The vivid imagery and playful language scattered across the pages stand as a testament to William Frank’s previous literary work.

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