something beautiful and strong
~~warning: here be one or two spoilers~~
Sue Gee seems to be one of those authors who’s both prolific and successful, and yet is still relatively unknown. She was long listed for the Orange Prize in 2005, which is exactly the sort of thing that happens to good writers who, for some reason or another, don’t please the mainstream as well as they might. That she isn’t better known is, on the basis of her new book Trio, a travesty, though perhaps not a surprise. It’s the sort of book that tends to suffer in an industry that has taken Twitter to its bosom. (I am not knocking Twitter. I mostly love Twitter and am increasingly coming to depend on it, which is a whole ‘nother story, as Americans say.) The point is that Trio is tender, nuanced, and although it contains plot points which could easily be played for melodrama, Gee’s writing is so fine that when you read those moments in her book, they pass in front of you in a thoroughly natural way. That’s terribly difficult to explain in 144 characters.
And then there’s the plot: a school teacher in Northumberland in 1937 grieves the loss of his wife, whom we get to know in the first chapter. (She dies at the end of it, but I felt real sorrow and pain when I read it—sixteen and a half pages in, and Gee had made me care about someone. That, boys and girls, is rare.) Anyway, Steven Coulter, the school teacher in question, meets a group of new friends through a work colleague. They’re all tight-knit and slightly secretive, their relationships reminiscent of The Secret History albeit rather more realistic. There’s beautiful Diana Embleton, who plays the cello; her charismatic brother Frank (with whom Steven teaches); talented violinist George Liddell; and enigmatic Margot, a pianist. These four grew up together, and Diana, George, and Margot have formed a musical trio, which plays regular concerts around the county. It doesn’t sound pacy or intriguing—but it is, it bloody well is.
Writing a book set in 1937, and partly in a large country house, you have to choose, I think, whether to give in to the inevitable echoes of early Downton Abbey, or whether to subvert them. Gee chooses to subvert, and she does that by investing a lot of authorial energy in characterisation. When I say that the death of Steven’s first wife, Margaret, made me feel sorrow after sixteen pages, I mean it; and she achieves that immediacy of feeling by using those sixteen pages to dive deeply not only into Margaret’s immediate bodily experience of tuberculosis, delirium and death, but also into her memory. Memory is what binds together most of the characters in Trio; it’s a sense of shared history between the Embletons, Margot, and George that makes their playing so intimate. It’s also what connects the book’s first section to its second, which is told not by any of the characters we’ve previously met, but by Steven’s son, sixty years in the future.
Although some of the characters fulfill certain stereotypical functions (Diana the beautiful; Margot the quietly enigmatic; George the closeted, tormented and brilliant), they each do so in a way that feels particular, not generalized. Diana, for instance, has many flaws, one of which is a self-centeredness that prevents her from understanding wider social or political currents. In a more Downton-esque novel, this flaw would be emphasised, but never explored; she would simply be dim, arrogant, gorgeous, and distant. In Trio, by contrast, that trait has a huge effect on the plot: Diana doesn’t realize that Margot’s father, whom she too has known as a father figure for twenty years, has fallen in love with her. When he finally declares himself, she is horrified, distraught, and rebuffs him in no uncertain terms, which shatters him and leads to tragedy. It’s the subtlety with which Gee builds up the situation, though, that shatters us, too, as readers: we know, long before Diana does, what Mr. Heslop’s feelings are for her. But we also know how easy it’s been for Diana to misunderstand his attentions as simple courtesy–his offers to carry her cello case, his solicitousness in keeping her wine glass topped up, seem perfectly natural, but Steven, through whose eyes we see everything, has observed that he can’t stop looking at her. We see because Steven sees, but Diana doesn’t have that kind of perspective.
For a book that revolves so explicitly around music, though, there aren’t many descriptions of it. When Gee writes about the trio working together, her focus is on their personal connection, the look that runs between them before they begin to play. She gets that spot-on; anyone who has performed music in a group small or large knows what that feels like, and anyone who has seen music performed live will recognise that electrified atmosphere, that awareness that you are witnessing intimate, non-verbal communication of the highest order. I have to confess that I wished for precise descriptions of the music, though; you can appreciate more fully the connection that enables a Beethoven trio to be performed when you understand what that piece sounds like. Writing prose descriptions of music is hard, but it can be done: Helen Stevenson, in Love Like Salt, released in February of this year, writes at length, and evocatively, about Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.
The second half of the book is a curious decision; it’s narrated by the eldest child of Steven and Margot’s eventual union (not the biggest spoiler in the world, I venture, since their relationship and marriage is signposted fairly early on.) It follows him as he drives from London back to Northumberland to celebrate Christmas with his sister, after the death of his parents and the sale of Hepplewick Hall, the house where the trio grew up together and which Margot eventually inherits. The point of this sudden shift of era and perspective, I think, is to demonstrate how things change, how time erodes even the most intense of relationships. While I was reading, it didn’t strike me as out of place, but looking back on the book as a whole, I’m hard-pressed to determine exactly why this second half was as long as it was. It would have worked perfectly well as an epilogue. And yet perhaps Gee wants us to feel a little bit off-balance; the story of the subsequent generations is given as much air time as the story of the Greatest Generation, even though, at least for me, it carried less immediate emotional weight.
Fundamentally, though, Trio is a book that rewards your careful attention; you will probably, if you are like me, want to gobble it up, but its observation of human behaviour, of the fault lines of friendships and the limitations of love, is of the subtlest sort. Its generous anatomization of grief and fallibility, and the immense trust it places in the power of music, has earned it a spot on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire. This summer, you really should be reading it too.
Many thanks to the kind folks at Salt for the review copy. Trio was published in the UK on 16 June.