Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Children's BachThe Children's Bach by Helen Garner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"and Athena will play Bach on the piano, in the empty house, and her left hand will keep up the steady rocking beat, and her right hand will run the arpeggios, will send them flying, will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air!"

Novellas and short novels are my favorite literary forms so when I came across a literary critic's review in which he ranks Helen Garner's "The Children's Bach" (1984) among the "four perfect short novels in the English language" I just had to run to the library. And now that I have finished reading this wonderfully skinny (the covers are thicker than all 95 pages together) literary gem, I can understand Don Anderson, the Australian critic, who made that categorical statement. While I do not think it is a perfect novel, it is indeed a very good book, and Ms. Garner's literary craft is of the highest caliber.

Dexter and Athena Fox are an early-middle-age married couple living a comfortable and apparently happy life - loving and being friends with each other - raising their two sons, one of whom, Billy, is developmentally disabled. One day Dexter runs into Elizabeth, a woman he knew when they were students together and whom he has not seen for almost 20 years. Elizabeth's much younger sister, 17-year-old Vicki, apparently in need of a mother figure, moves into the Foxes' house to be close to Athena. Elizabeth still keeps in touch with her ex-lover, Phillip, a popular musician who's taking care of his 12-year-old daughter Poppy. They all become frequent guests at the Foxes, which leads to a major disruption of Athena and Dexter's routine.

The synopsis sounds like a schmaltzy melodrama type of plot, but the truly terrific writing makes the whole difference. Ms. Garner has mastered the most important skill of a writer - the difficult skill of deleting as much text as possible. She could have churned out a standard 400-page bestseller, full of the usual vapid fluff, but she went for quality instead and removed everything non-essential from the book. What remained is indeed close to perfect. I was re-reading many stunning fragments of prose several times to savor the superb writing craft of the author.

The Children's Bach is first and foremost about Athena. Until Dexter's random meeting the trajectory of her life had been straight and clear - almost on autopilot - defined by the need to be there for Dexter and the family. Athena has never wondered "what if" and when she suddenly finds that question staring her in the face, she takes a tentative step into the unknown.

The reader has a chance to learn about the characters through their music: Dexter sings arias from operas, Athena practices Bach's preludes, Phillip plays guitar in a rock band. And Billy's music - most dramatically - consists of the steady sound patterns, the rhythms of "the rushes and pauses of the swing" that soothe him during his unpredictable attacks. Athena's music is the most difficult - "Bach is never simple, but that is one reason why we should all try to master him" - but is it not better to try and fail rather than to comfortably follow the routine. Or is it?

Four and a quarter stars.

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