There is something so satisfying about following an author as they mature. Reading their early, promising but not-quite-sufficiently-polished efforts can be both exciting and frustrating – exciting when you think the author is going to carry it all off beautifully, frustrating when she doesn’t. Until finally, after two books or twelve, the author finally does it. She comes forth with a book that is everything you knew she was capable of. Reading it brings not just the joy of a wonderful book but the delight of seeing a promising author mature.
That was how I felt about Natasha Solomons‘ newest novel, The Song Collector. It is her fourth novel (I read the first two – Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English and The Novel in the Viola – with some enthusiasm but could not make it through her third) and it is everything I had hoped she might be capable of.
Following the death of his wife, the English composer Harry Fox-Talbot has no interest in working – or in anything else. He floats through his days, unable to listen to music or compose. Music, the force that had sustained him for so many years, the mutual passion which had bound him and his wife, a renowned singer, together, is something he cannot yet face. Instead, he waits. For the return of the wife who he rationally knows is gone. Or perhaps for his own death, even though the doctors assure him he is in perfect health:
‘You’re not ill, Mr Fox-Talbot. You’re sad.’
I’d inhaled sharply, affronted. Sad was the wrong word. Sad was watching an old weepie when it was raining outside or taking down the Christmas tree on the first day of January or listening to the last concert of the season knowing that afterwards all the musicians would depart and the house would be much too quiet. I’d wanted to rise to my feet and inform the young doctor that I took offence at his most inappropriate use of language but for some reason my legs wouldn’t move, and my tongue was dry and fat, and it stuck to the roof of my mouth.
All I’d managed was, ‘This wasn’t the plan. Women live longer than men. Everyone knows that. This wasn’t the plan at all.’
Then there is a revelation: his grandson, a troublesome four year old, is a musical prodigy. As he carefully nurtures his grandson’s talents, Fox slowly reignites his own musical passion and reengages with his life-long friends in the musical world, also facing the daily griefs – large and small – that come with aging.
Juxtaposed to this is the story of Fox’s early adulthood, starting in 1946 as he returns to his family home (requisitioned during the war) with his father and two elder brothers. At both ages, we see him discovering and growing his love of music and dealing with his love for the beautiful, reserved singer Edie Rose, first as an admirer and later as her widower. It’s a beautiful structure that Solomons handles with delicacy and thoughtfulness.
At any age, Harry Fox-Talbot is an intensely appealing character. All of his insecurities, his dreams, and his fears are exposed to us. Perhaps because of that, he seems almost fragile. The other characters are merely background, but that is perfectly alright. Who would want to leave Fox, even for a second? Not I.
I was deeply touched by this book. With its quiet steady pace and lyrical writing it had the power to sweep me out of my daily life and into Fox’s world. His friends, his family, and his music were are the forefront of my mind whenever I had to put the book down (work just keeps getting in the way of reading) and it felt like returning to a friend each time I picked the book up to read a few more chapters. That feeling is so rare and I cherish it.