May book of the month shortlist: musical gems
Music begins where words end. Any writer must take a deep breath before attempting to convey its strength and power, not least because the effect on the soul is so intangible.
Two of our four shortlisted authors this month – Rose Tremain and Ann Patchett – have created novels that are a direct tribute to the transformative power of music, while the other two – Nick Hornby and Tiffany Murray – are more concerned with those whose lives are mixed up in and defined by music. But all of them succeed in capturing this most elusive of subjects...
Diamond Star Halo by Tiffany Murray
Happy Accidents, Tiffany Murray's first novel, is a fizzing, modern take on Cold Comfort Farm: dysfunctional family; eccentric characters, and quirky detail in every corner. Diamond Star Halo has a very similar feel – set on a rural farm inhabited by the not exactly straightforward Llewellyn family – but with added rock and roll. It is 1977 and a US rock band has come to the recording studio in the farm outbuildings. When they leave, the family find a small baby called Fred, wrapped in a red cape, on the bed. Fred becomes everybody's favourite, especially Halo's (the Llewellyn daughter). But the stardom in Fred's veins eventually propels him out of her world, and Halo must find out if her love for him can survive. Funny, inventive and affecting.
Critics say: "This book made me smile and feel that life just became several degrees more enchanting." Patrick Gale, author of Notes on an Exhibition
Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby
A music-themed book list would not be complete without Nick Hornby. From the obvious High Fidelity to the lyrics in About a Boy, Hornby's writing is infused with musical reference. Juliet, Naked moves closer to High Fidelity territory, with a couple (Annie and Duncan) who are driven apart by Duncan's obsession with a reclusive, tortured genius songwriter – and Annie's belief that his latest album is just a bit, well, dreary. This betrayal leads to Duncan's infidelity, and to Annie mysteriously receiving a message from the songwriter himself. A compelling novel about the nature of creativity and obsession, and about how two lonely people can find each other.
Critics say: "About feelings being reawakened, small lives being expanded, and the function that art can play in the process... Subtle and insightful and really quite touching." The Independent on Sunday
Music and Silence by Rose Tremain
In the year 1629, a young English lutenist named Peter Claire arrives at the Danish Court to join King Christian IV's Royal Orchestra. From the moment when he realises that the musicians have to perform in a freezing cellar underneath the royal apartments, he understands that he's come to a place where the opposing states of light and dark, and good and evil are waging war to the death. Both violent and tender, shocking and consoling, this is a bold, uncompromising, wildly original book which demonstrates that, in the day-to-day business of living, as in a fairy tale, not everything is totally black, nor wholly white. A dramatic, brilliantly imagined book from a multiple-award-winning author.
Critics say: "Magnificent... shot through with Tremain's unique blend of psychological acuity and charm." The Times
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
When Latin terrorists storm an international gathering, hosted by an underprivileged country to promote foreign interest and trade, they find that their intended target, the President, has stayed home to watch his favourite TV soap. Among the hostages are a world-class opera singer and her biggest fan, a Japanese tycoon who has been persuaded to attend the party on the understanding that she will perform half a dozen arias after dinner. The tycoon's engaging and sympathetic translator plays a vital role in the subsequent relationships between so many different nationalities, interpreting not only the terrorists' negotiations but also the language of love between lovers who cannot understand what the other is saying. Ultimately, music also finds a way to bind them together. Elegant and skillfully written, this novel won the Orange Prize in 2002.
Critics say: "A beguiling mix of thriller, romantic comedy, and novel of ideas. Crisply written, immaculately plotted, and often very funny, it is that rarity: a literary novel you simply can't put down." The Times
Vote for your choice by Monday 26 April and then join our book club discussion on Tuesday 25 May at 8pm.
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