Wolsenburg Clock

26 May 2010

The Wolsenburg Clock
by Jay Ruzesky
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$18.95 ISBN 978-1-897235-62-1

BC poet-turned-novelist Jay Ruzesky’s The Wolsenburg Clock is an admirable book, and I recommend you take time to read it. It’s often riotous. It’s impeccably researched. And its passionate characters offer minute-by-minute fun. Best of all, it made me recall the singular experience of being swept up in a good, old-fashioned fable.

Yes, the years wound back as I read this book, and I felt a child’s delight again.

The story unspools at a civilized pace, in a way reminiscent of novels of an earlier era. This is most fitting, as the novel traces the conception, building, and rebuilding of an astronomical clock through the Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Modern periods of history, and it delivers us into the hearts and minds of the brilliant engineers who understood and added to the clock’s magic. Think carved stone; copper; dials; statues; a model of the universe; crowing cocks; blossoming flowers; and automatons so realistic and advanced, they play musical instruments, walk tightropes, and “juggle whining kittens.”

In the prologue we meet an academic on sabbatical in the small Austrian city of Wolsenburg. The narrator’s enraptured by the ornate 60′ clock, housed in the city’s cathedral, and when the clock’s keeper offers to share its workings, he gives the man “the chance to look into the mind of God”.

This is no ordinary clock: it tracks “celestial motion and astronomical events,” and “measure[s] the world and predict[s] the future.” In Medieval times, astronomical clocks
symbolized “God’s perfect order in the universe and of [parishioners] role in that order,” and throughout the book Ruzesky humourously hints at the centuries’ old courtly dance between science and religion.

The clock’s first engineer, Wildrik, tells the cardinal that he’ll create a clock that “will make the irreverent devout,” but he must first conceive of a way to deal with the inaccuracies created by the Julian calendar.

Part of the book’s charm is that the author convincingly recreates historical periods through specific details, ie: “Some children ran by engaged at hoodman’s blind, and a crowd was gathered at the top of the square betting on cockfights.” The characters’ authentic diction is on the mark, but Ruzesky also has great fun with his cast, ie: during a long, formal ceremony in the cathedral, one man says: “Is this going to go on much longer? … My feet are killing me” – it’s like the author is winking at us.

But “wonder” is the book’s bottom line. The characters are “starving with curiousity,” and what results for readers is delicious. I was mesmerized by the child-geniuses and grandmother alchemist; laughed along with lovers’ witty repartee; and as the clock became ever more magical, I devoured its details like the proverbial kid in a candy store.

Do you still possess a sense of wonder? Have you lost yours and need an infusion? Read The Wolsenburg Clock, and like the narrator, you, too, may “wonder again at the world.”


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