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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

"Music and Silence" by Rose Tremain

The winner of the 1999 Whitbread Novel award, this is a historical novel set in the court of King Christian IV of Denmark, who was a contemporary of Charles I of England (who appears briefly). Tremain also wrote Restoration and its sequel Merivel which were set in the court of Charles II of England, and The Gustav Sonata which is more contemporary.

Despite the title, Tremain seems to concentrate rather on the visual analogies of light and darkness. This starts on the first page:

  • “Until this moment, when the flame of the lamp flares blue, then settles to study yellow inside its ornate globe, the young man had been ... questioning the nature of this darkness. For it seemed to him not merely an external phenomenon, having to do with an actual absence of light, but rather as though it emanated from within him, as if he had finally crossed the threshold of his own absence of hope.” (p 1)

It continues throughout:

  • “Since the death of Karen she has not been comfortable with the way shadows in the lamplight move at such astounding speed.”
  • “She was my sister and she told me a rhyme. What is the world made of I do not know, sometimes it is made of dancing snow. Sometimes it is made of darkness.”
  • “She is tired of living in the dark, weary of the perpetual shadows and the dripping of the candles.”
However, other aspects of the book are clearly based on musical forms. For example, the plot has the complexities of Grand Opera and the story is told from the point of view of many of the participants, as though these are the instruments of the orchestra.

The plot is labyrinthine. It follows the fortunes of Peter Claire, a lutenist from Harwich, England, who has an angelically beautiful face. He falls in love with Emilia Tilsen, a serving woman to the Queen's wife Kirsten Munk, a splendidly horrid woman who dislikes all her many children and is having an affair with a Swedish nobleman. It is Kirsten's intrigues and manipulations which prove an obstacle to the young lovers. Such a convoluted plot reminded me of grand opera. On the other hand, I had the impression that the plot lacked structure; there seemed to be the feeling of 'what else can be done in order to keep the lovers apart for a little longer?' It seemed almost picaresque in its lack of an overall shape, a criticism that could also be made of The Gustav Sonata. A third perspective could be that such is life, it is a meandering journey in which no direction is discernible for long; however, that is rarely true of a piece of music. The fourth way that one could consider the plot is in terms of the Hero's Journey. Peter Claire 'enters the labyrinth' (a stage in the classic Hero's Journey) when he meets the King at the Danish Court; here he has adventures including the trip to the silver mine and he is made to undergo trials by wicked women. Equally Emilia has a similar journey from the moment she goes to court until she escapes from Kirstenm and returns to her father's farm; there is still a final trial required of her here.

The story is told in little snippets from many of the main characters including the King, mourning his friend, the dyslexic nobleman Bror Brorson; Peter; Peter's previous lover the Italian/Irish countess from his previous job in Ireland; Emilia; Kirsten; Peter's dad back in Harwich; King Charles I ... It is as if there are many instruments in the orchestra, each one having its moment to predominate if not solo. Sometimes this approach, especially when involving minor characters, seemed bitty but it was impressive how Tremain could mimic so many voices.

My favourite character is the villain: Kirsten, unfaithful wife of the King. She has great lines:
  • “Why do husbands refuse to understand that we women do not for long remain their Pet Creatures?”
  • “This is the principal trouble with Children: they do not let you do one single thing but they must do it also, and this Habit of Copying does so grate on me that I declare I wish I never had never had any children whatsoever.”
  • Kirsten talks about babies: “The noise they make is infernal. The stench of them is scarcely to be endured, for they are ever spewing out strings of pearly vomit or straining till their eyes start from their heads to produce farmyard motions. Their talk is plain nonsense. At the least thing, they wail and scream.”
  • “She is merely Like All Other Babies, and that is: ugly, foul-smelling, cross-eyed, mewling, farting, uncomfortable, angry and Wretched.”
Many, many wonderful moments of insight into the human condition:
Part One
  • “They say the devil, driven out of churches by the implacable Lutherans, began to seek unbaptised souls to inhabit and that he flew round the crowded cities at night, sniffing for the odour of human milk.”
  • “Learning he loved, this was certain. It was the passing on of this learning that he did not love entirely.”
  • “A man can travel too far from his point of departure and become lost and never find his way back. All that remains to him then is to keep moving forward and pray that hope does not desert him too.”
  • “Running ... with their dark cloaks flying, as if time had been sewn into their garments and was now pursuing them”
  • “Hope is a strange commodity. It is an opiate. We swear we have relinquished it and lo, there comes a day when, all unannounced, our enslavement to it returns.”
  • “Nature locks away her secrets like a courtesan, to tease us with longing.”
  • “When you find yourself at odds with life, strive not to fight with fortune but fight instead with your own weaknesses.”
  • “Not being Shakespeare appears to him ... as a not inconsiderable burden all Englishmen are forced to bear.”
  • “He finds himself ... in a grey desert where the horizon is unpeopled yet the ground is covered in shadows.”
  • “Man at his greatest is still mortal. A nail in the sole of his foot can snatch his life away.”
  • “Should a man strive ... only to let in those thoughts which proceed logically from other thoughts and to protect himself from everything that had about it the feeling of uninvitedness? Or, might it be true that certain kinds of valuable perception only arrive as the wind-blown seed arrives in the water meadow, their provenance for ever unknown or unrecorded?”
  • “In his twenty-seven years of life, women have behaved towards Peter Claire asd the sea behaves towards the wind. His power to disturb their calm, to whip up their longings ... has never before deserted him.”

Part Two
  • “Man spends days and nights and years of his life asking the question ‘How may I be brought to the divine?’, yet all musicians instinctively know the answer: they are brought to the divine by their music.”

Part Three
  • “A man’s vision, before it has achieved its intended form, habitually expresses itself in confused strivings.”
  • “To stay Alive, we are forced to Scheme. To have any Joy, we must Steal like Magpies from the Pitiful Store of it.”
  • “‘Just at present’ is not a fixed entity. It is not the sundial ... but the moving shadow cast by the sun.”
  • “Once the dancers are balanced on their rope, the crowd will long only for them to fall.”
  • “The secret of a successful life is not to die before one’s death.”
I enjoyed the richness of the world created by Tremain; the details brought me into the Danish court so that I became a part of it. However, I found the repeated postponement of any possibility of a happy ending wearisome and I skim-read the last twenty pages or so because by then I cared for little except that I should finish the book.

March 2019; 454 pages

Books by Tremain reviewed in this blog include:




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