It is a pleasure to review and recommend this compelling story, a debut novel from life-long South Carolinian Susan Beckham Zurenda, who lives in Spartanburg. A former English teacher, her fiction short stories and non-fiction works have been published in literary journals, earning her several awards.
In “Bells For Eli,” she delivers a poignant, unforgettable coming-of-age story and what should be a serious contender for best debut novel.
We meet cousins, Eli and Delia (Dee) when they are just 3 years old. It is at this time that Eli is critically injured in an accident at home. Interestingly, the author said the seed of this idea came from a similar life-changing event that occurred in her family, adding that all else in this book is fiction.
Morgana, Mississippi, is to Eudora Welty as Green Branch, South Carolina, is to Spartanburg writer Susan Beckham Zurenda. Besides being fictitious backdrops for exploring themes like racism, family, and belonging, the small, secret-laden Southern towns provide a sense of place that, as Welty insisted, “focus the gigantic, voracious eye of genius and bring its gaze to point.” They beg us to see the extraordinary.
To that end, Zurenda’s debut novel, Bells for Eli (Mercer University Press), is deeply atmospheric. “It is a product of the time and place,” says Zurenda. Entrenched in the insularity of 1960s Green Branch — a locale that evidences “bits and pieces” of Zurenda’s hometown of Lancaster, South Carolina — narrator Adeline “Delia” Green and her first cousin Ellison “Eli” Winfield challenge cultural mores with an attachment that defies reason.
There are some books that you enjoy so much when you near the end you sort of panic and force yourself to stop reading. Thirty pages towards the end of Susan Zurenda’s novel, Bells for Eli, I had such a moment and deliberately set the novel on my nightstand to take up the next day
I told Susan, after finishing her remarkable book, Bells for Eli, that I seem to be on a roll in reading books that bring tears to my eyes at the end. But that's not a bad thing; it shows how much the reader (moi) has been affected by the characters in the story, which is exactly what any good writer wants. They want us to enter the world they have created and worked on, in some cases, for years. The world Susan created mostly takes place in South Carolina in the turbulent 60s and 70s. Those were my "coming of age" years, my teens and early 20s, which made much of the book's setting ring so very true and familiar to me.
We follow the lives of two cousins, Eli and Delia. They are as close as first cousins can be and profess their love for each other time and time again. I fell in love with Delia, too, as we see their relationship through her eyes. Her voice resonates innocence and a maturity beyond her years. I felt her pain, frustration, and anguish.
Spartanburg’s Susan Beckham Zurenda gives us the spring novel, “Bells for Eli” (Mercer, $25), set in fictional Green Branch, S.C., in the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s a tale of first cousins — a boy and a girl — and their devotion and forbidden love. Sandra Conroy calls it “a stunning debut.”
For readers who also grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, the way of life and the references to popular culture give a sense of nostalgia. The motif of bells rings throughout the book. The novel is at turns heartwarming and tragic. It moves from quiet and slow-moving to tension and trepidation. Good pacing reveals the events that brought Delia to 1978 and a pivotal point in her life. This novel of an unbreakable bond and genuine love between Delia and Eli is a moving and worthwhile read.
South Carolina author Susan Zurenda's debut novel, Bells for Eli, explores how one small mistake can change the trajectory of a young boy's life. Taking place in a small Southern town during the 1960s and '70s, Bells for Eli follows first cousins Eli and Delia as they explore a love forbidden by social constraints. New York Times-bestselling author (and wife of the late Pat Conroy), Cassandra King Conroy has said of the book: "In this tender, beautifully-rendered novel, the powerful connection between cousins Delia and Eli takes them on a journey fraught with longing, desire, and heartbreak. Through loss, Delia comes to understand that the bonds of love can never truly be broken."
Bells for Eli is a coming-of-age story about two fiercely loyal cousins who grow up together. I don’t want to go into the plot too much because there is so much beauty here to explore. Susan Beckham Zurenda’s writing is skillful, so much so you may think you are reading a classic. There’s tragedy for each of the cousins, and hope after the despair. I absolutely adored this emotional book and its authentic, lovable characters, and it was a reading experience I cherished. If you are looking for a beautiful, heartrending book, definitely pick this one up. I’ll be first in line for the next book from this author!
The novel’s sensitive but grounded voice seamlessly integrates Gothic elements, the cousins’ emotional arcs, and the shifting cultural landscape. Insightful and assured, Zurenda’s haunting coming-of-age story should appeal to fans of nuanced and atmospheric Southern fiction.
There is hardly anything I enjoy more than discovering a truly uniquely talented author. So you can imagine my excitement in discovering Susan Beckham Zurenda. She is a brilliant writer and to make it even better a brilliant southern writer. . . . For me reading this story was like going home. I knew this town, knew these people, knew this world. Zurenda spoke to me in a way few authors have in the past. . . . .Mark down her name – Susan Beckham Zurenda. You are going to hear a lot more from her and about her
Bells For Eli is a triumphant debut brimming with captivating characters and Southern charm. Author Susan Beckham Zurenda writes powerful and clear prose that pulls the reader inside small-town South Carolina, fifty plus years ago, and tells the story of Adeline Green and her coming of age experiences with friendship, love and the powerful bond she has with her cousin, Eli. Zurenda’s ability to create a truly authentic and vivid backdrop to such a heart-felt story is something readers will enjoy on every page
[Bells for Eli] is deeply moving, troubling, and gloriously poetic. It brings to life small town South Carolina during the 1960s and 70s in a gorgeous and profound tale of the heart’s competing destinies. . . Zurenda knows her characters well and shares her understanding with harrowing honesty. . . . A terrific multi-generational tale.
I was immediately transported back in time to the significant cultural challenges of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and how many survived those times, and some did not. And I could feel the heat as Zurenda described a small-town South Carolina summer with no air-conditioning and dusty front porches. . . . .Delia brought her story alive, just for me
Zurenda's book is well-written, with believable, sympathetic characters, . . . a faithful representation of recent history in our society that kept me interested and engaged in Bells for Eli from beginning to end.
MOST FIRST TIME AUTHORS are happy just to get published. Not many find themselves Okra Picks, featured author at Publishers Weekly, or receiving advance accolades from The New York Times best selling authors. Susan Beckham Zurenda, author of Bells For Eli (MERCER UNIVERSITY PRESS) is the exception... Zurenda's future now looks bright.
Bill welcomes debut novelist Susan Zurenda to the show. After teaching literature, composition, and creative writing to thousands of high school and college students for 33 years, Susan turned her attention to putting a novel in her heart on paper, the genesis of which started with a short story that won a fiction prize some years ago and Bells for Eli was published on March 2!
"Coming of age narratives, particularly about young women, have long been a staple in the literature of the American South. Zurenda’s marvelous book is a major achievement in this genre. It is deeply moving, troubling, and gloriously poetic. It brings to life small town South Carolina during the 1960s and 70s in a gorgeous and profound tale of the heart’s competing destinies."
“From time to time, Mama proclaimed I ruminated too much,” says Delia Green, the narrator of Susan Beckham Zurenda’s debut novel, Bells for Eli. What Delia mostly ruminates about is her close relationship with her cousin Eli, whose family lives across the street in the small town of Green Branch, South Carolina. The two cousins’ worlds are changed forever in 1959 when Eli accidentally swallows lye on the day before his third birthday."
"If you’re looking for titles to add to your spring reading list, Bells for Eli, the debut novel by Susan Zurenda, should definitely be at the top. Set in the small town of Green Branch, South Carolina, in the 1960s and ’70s, the story focuses on first cousins Ellison (Eli) Winfield and Adeline (Delia) Green. The two are deeply bound not just by blood, but by an accident that changes life as they know it."
Readers would do well to pick up Bells for Eli. Indeed, I was thrilled to discover that there are still novels that offer such depth of story and strength of character, without any sense of being high-brow. . . . The gentle power of this novel completely surprised me. It’s a solid 5 star book. Do read.
I became engrossed in the story and became to love both characters. Eli makes the mother in me come out. I wanted to reach out to Eli and protect him from himself. Unfortunately, that did not happen. The author writes a descriptive and engrossing gothic novel that will appeal to anyone who reads it. I highly recommend it!
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Interview by Leslie Moore
Review by Nicole McManus
I was transported back in time with this powerful coming of age novel. I think readers everywhere will be looking forward to reading more from her in the future.