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Louis Maistros – The Sound of Building Coffins

March 5, 2009

LibraryThing Early Reviewers25. The Sound of Building Coffins by Louis Maistros (2009)

Length: 360 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 25 February 2009
Finished: 01 March 2009

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 05 February 2009
Verdict? Keeper; I can easily seem myself being in the mood to re-read this.

Magic and rebirth
make a book that flows like jazz,
or like the river.

The Sound of Building Coffins was published by The Toby Press on 01 March 2009; get your copy on Amazon.

Summary: The Sound of Building Coffins begins in New Orleans in 1891 with a one-year-old baby of Sicilian immigrants who has been possessed by a demon. A group of men, including Noonday Morningstar, the local holy man, his son Typhus, who rebirths aborted fetuses as catfish in the powerful water of the Mississippi, and Buddy Bolden, a young jazz magician, go to help the desperate young mother. However, what none of them know is that the story really starts some 40 years before, with a vodou curse gone out of control – and none of them can know that their actions on that night will have consequenses that will ripple throughout their lives, their families, and their community.

Review: The Sound of Building Coffins is a difficult book to quantify or summarize; it encompasses birth, death, afterlife, rebirth, magic, sex, family, and religion. It stars con men and whores, musicians and abortionists, demons and ghosts, vodou priestesses and gravediggers, men trapped in the bodies of boys and men with normal bodies but the minds of boys. Each has their part to play in the tapestry of story that unfolds, and while that tapestry is intricately and tightly woven, it’s a hard thing to tell exactly what the overall picture is. Overall, I came out of it with a sense of the underside of New Orleans at the turn of the last century, a place where everything grows, and where everything rots, and where the magical and the miraculous hovers a little closer to the veil that separates them from ordinary life.

Initially, I was a little bit apprehensive about the magical realism element of the story. I like fantasy, and I generally like supernatural elements bleeding into the rest of my fiction, but I haven’t had the best luck with stories that typically get labeled “magical realism”. In The Sound of Building Coffins, however, these elements give the story its flavor and its power – two things that it has in spades – and I had no problem going “oh, of course aborted babies are reborn as catfish, and pink demon-water stalks through the bayou swamps.” It sounds silly laid bare like that, but when it’s in context it completely works, giving the story a slightly otherworldly feel that helps set it apart from other historical fiction. The writing is lovely as well – lyrical and confident in its voice… a voice that speaks of moonlight on the muddy Mississippi and a night breeze blowing the scent of jasmine and the faint sounds of jazz. Ultimately, I felt like I didn’t quite get to the point of what Maistros wanted to say, but I sure as heck enjoyed the journey. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Readers who like the New Orleans that shines through Anne Rice’s early work will probably enjoy this book, as will those who are looking for some wonderfully lyrical historical fiction that’s different from the standard fare.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Louis Maistros’s home page

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The short legs of the mulatto boy pedaled the rickety bicycle southeasterly down the bumpy, ballast-stoned streets of the French Quarter.


When a creature is so utterly alone in the universe, such a creature got no use for right and wrong, good and bad. If there’s only you and no one else, then there’s only what comes to mind – and if what comes to mind don’t affect no one but yourself, then right and wrong don’t exactly apply.

Now, being God might very well mean to know everything. But you must understand that even for God the knowing don’t come easy. So when a question come up that stumped his big ol’ God-brain, he set about finding an answer. And that’s where we come in. He invented morality and planted it in our breasts. And only through our actions could he ever hope to learn about that particular thing.

Could be we’re here to answer God’s questions and not the other way around.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 100: “Other various and appropriate amenities for the lwas (tenants of the Spiritworld) included a fine red rooster, omelets prepared with corn and hot peppers, a honey mixture of corn and black pepper, dried corn mixed with gunpowder, raw tafin liquor, pepper jelly, and a red candle intricately carved into the shape of a woman holding a heart.” – I’ve got absolutely no idea, and the internet is not helping. Anybody know this?
  • p. 100: “Malvina had drawn a large vevé for Erzulie le Flambeau with powdered cornmeal twenty feet from the altar’s base.” – a religious symbol for a vodou religion’s “loa” (or lwa) (spirit) and serves as their representation during rituals.
  • p. 154: “At Lulu’s she was hired on as the house “goat”; and to be a goat meant to prance around the first floor parlor naked as a jaybird save for high-heeled shoes. Lulu’s goat was lagniappe for her high-class clientele.” – a small gift given with a purchase to a customer, by way of compliment or for good measure; bonus.
  • p. 250: “What proof was there that this particular fog on this particular morning would lift from the cipriere just because it had chosen to lift in such a way on every other morning of her life?” – cypress grove or swamp.

Who wants to play “Spot What Annoyed The Biologist”?
p. 127: “Would have been perfect quiet if not for the low warble of a hundred lonely bullfrogs, hoping for love and getting none. Typhus waited. Still: No sound beyond that of lovelorn reptiles.” GAH!

**All quotes are from an advance review copy and may not reflect the final published text (and in the case of the last one, I sincerely hope it does not.)**

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2009 7:34 am

    I love the title of the book, but I’m not sure about the magical realism. Great review, though.

  2. March 5, 2009 9:16 am

    bermudaonion – I think if you’re willing to suspend a little bit of disbelief it should be fine. It was pretty easy to do, partly because I think New Orleans is just one of those places where I’m not surprised to hear about the supernatural happening… comes from reading too much Anne Rice, I think. ;)

  3. March 5, 2009 3:24 pm

    This sounds like something I would LOVE. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  4. March 6, 2009 3:17 am

    Interesting title. The first thing it makes me think of is the Black Plague or the Influenza Pandemic but the actual premise is pretty interesting as well.

  5. March 6, 2009 12:58 pm

    Nymeth – While I’m not as sure about this as I am about Guy Gavriel Kay, I think you would like it, yes. I’d offer you my copy, but I want to keep it! I’ll keep my eyes peeled for another one, though. :)

    Ladytink – The yellow fever epidemic of the 1850s definitely touches on the story, so you’re not too far off, but it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting from the title, either.

  6. March 6, 2009 1:44 pm

    I’ve only read one book with magical realism, and I didn’t even know that’s what they called it until I read someone else’s review! LOL Sounds like an interesting book, and I enjoyed your review.

  7. March 8, 2009 9:34 am

    Anna – Of the top books tagged “magical realism” on LibraryThing, I’ve read five: one I loved, two I really liked, and two I really, really didn’t. So I guess I don’t actually dislike magical realism, just some prominent examples of it…

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