Sunday 29 March 2009

An Equal Music

This is the Reading group's book for April. By the Indian writer Vikram Seth, An Equal Music is an enjoyable and quite intriguing novel. At one level it is a love story, though a rather unconventional love story. Michael and Julia's story is narrated by Michael and begins some ten years after Michael had in some mysterious circumstances left Julia in Vienna. Now living in London he tries again to find her. There is a fair amount of suspense in the tale – will Michael see Julia again, will they still be in love, will they stay in love, will they live happily ever after? They do of course meet again, though much has changed for both of them. For a start Julia is now married and has a son, which somewhat complicates matters. The tale of how they try to pick up the pieces again is full of intrigue, joy, passion, memories, hurt and pain.

The novel is though, much more, very much more than a love story. Both Michael and Julia are professional musicians and the book is in a sense an extended reflection on music, at least classical music. Bach, Beethoven and Schubert feature almost as much as the living characters. Michael is part of a string quartet and the book gives a vivid and seemingly realistic account of the trials and tribulations of music making in a quartet. The relationships within and without the group are cleverly drawn into the narrative. At a crucial stage in the novel Julia joins the quartet to play the piano in Schubert's quintet the “Trout”. It is about the same time that it emerges that Julia is now deaf. Quite a brave development to bring into a novel about music, though it does allow for much discussion about what is music – what does Julia hear when she plays? How can she play when she cannot hear? The concert is due to take place in Vienna which is where Julia and Michael first met and from where he left or was it abandoned her ten years ago. And it is in Vienna that Michael has to confront his own demons - for what did cause Michael ten years ago to leave Julia in the lurch?

Though primarily based in London the book takes us not just to Vienna but also to Venice as well as forays to the cultural backwater of Rochdale, from where Michael comes. For a minor subplot of the novel is how a butcher's son from the “North” (of England that is) comes to mix it and make it in the world of classical music. There are many intriguing, almost suspenseful, subtales in the novel – the discovery of an almost unknown score, the fate of Michael's Tononi violin, and Michael's relationship with his former music professor the somewhat eminence grise figure of Carl Kjell.

The driving force of the novel though is Michael and his love for Julia. And this is a richly observed and complex tale, very finely crafted. The inspiration for the novel apparently came from the French violinist and Seth's former partner Philippe Honoré to whom the novel is dedicated in the acrostic sonnet which appears at the beginning of the book.

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