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‘Clara’ by Janice Galloway ***

Janice Galloway is an author whose work I very much admire, and have often been blown away by.  I spotted her historical novel, Clara, whilst spending some vouchers in Waterstones, and just could not bear to leave without it.  It oddly took me quite a while to actually pick up the book, despite loving everything of Galloway’s which I had read to date.  Clara, a historical novel, and the recipient of the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award, is quite a change from the very contemporary work of Galloway’s which I am used to.  It has variously been called intense, powerful, and brilliant by reviewers, and is described as a ‘lyrical and vibrant account of two remarkable and highly dramatic musical careers.’

w204The novel is based on the life of Clara Schumann, the celebrated nineteenth-century concert pianist.  Schumann also worked as a composer, teacher, and editor, and was a friend of Brahms.  She married Robert Schumann, who suffered from ‘crippling mental illnesses’, and the couple had eight children together.  Clara was born to the Wieck family in Liepzig, to musical parents, and went on to be considered one of the best composers of the Romantic age.

With poetic language from the outset, Galloway’s third novel introduces Clara in a beautiful and memorable manner: ‘Her eyes are wide…  Look hard as you like, they don’t change.  The depth of those eye sockets, the slab of her brow is how she is arranged, that’s all…  So far as can be managed, this face is blunt.  Inscrutable.  As it should be.  A pianist must develop more than technique, more than musicianship, more, even, than luck.  She needs the capacity to deny fear.’  Galloway’s prose marches on in this manner, and she proves time and again that she can capture so much using just a few words.  She writes, for instance, ‘… her unmade bed, its spill of pillows; the window, the single chair.’   Galloway’s writing is often stunning, and rich with the images which it evokes.

Galloway, too, is practiced at capturing sound and touch in a sensual manner.  When describing Clara’s playing as a child, she writes: ‘During the day, all day, the music rises.  Standing over the practice room ceiling, upon the floorboards of elsewhere, she can feel it buzz beneath the soles of her canvas shoes.  Music makes sensation, it vibrates along the bones.’  The novel is evocative, sad, and vivid in almost equal measure.  In the first of the novel’s eight parts, Galloway focuses on Clara as a small child: ‘Some children can lie so still you’d think they’d stopped breathing, and this one’s better than most.  She lies in the dark like a dead thing till the dark sucks her in and she supposes that is sleep.  It never seems like sleep.  It seems like waiting.’

The novel’s composition has been delicately and expertly handled, and it moves forward chronologically in time, charting Clara’s growth both in a physical and musical manner.  Galloway handles her primary material with tact, elevating it until it feels fresh and new.  Regardless, the novel is rather a long one, and I feel as though Clara would have had far more impact had it been shorter, and perhaps consisted of less parts.  Although its plot has been well arranged, there were some sections which added little to the overall novel.

Galloway captures so much here, and she undeniably does it well.  It did get to the stage, however, where I began to wonder if she was describing everything in too much detail.  Whilst nice enough to read, a lot of the minutiae which has been included is unnecessary, and contributes very little to the novel in the grand scheme of things.

Clara appears to be distinctly under-read, with under 250 ratings on Goodreads, and just a handful of reviews.  There is a lot of substance to the novel, but never does it become saturated or difficult to read.  I was pulled in immediately, and for the first hundred pages or so, was reluctant to put it down.  For me, though, Clara felt far more realistic in her incarnation as a child than she did as an adult.  There was something about her adult self which simply did not feel convincing.

However, I did find that parts of the novel became a little repetitive, particularly with regard to Robert’s episodes of mental illness, and the effects they had on Clara, as well as Galloway’s descriptions of music.  I also found it a little odd that Clara was not always the focus of this, her own story; attention shifts to Robert as soon as he is introduced, and Clara becomes almost a secondary character.  I wish she had been given far more agency.  I was fascinated by Clara and her story, but my interest was not always sustained due to the continual shift of focus onto Robert.  This, for me, was a real shame, as I was fully expecting to love Clara when I began to read it.  

I love Galloway’s experimental prose style, but do not feel as though it suits a work of historical fiction.  Galloway’s writing sometimes felt too modern for the story, and in that manner there are slight jarring clashes which become more apparent as the novel goes on.  It is an ambitious book, but for me, Galloway did not quite pull everything together in a satisfactory manner, and there are a manner of ambiguities which remain.  Regardless, Clara Schumann was a remarkable woman in many ways, and I would certainly like to learn more about her in future.

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Reviews: ‘The Porcupine’ and ‘The Trick Is To Keep Breathing’

The Porcupine by Julian Barnes ** 9780099540144
‘Stoyo Petkanov, the deposed Party leader of a former Soviet satellite country, is on trial. His adversary, the prosecutor general, stands for the new government’s ideals and liberal certainties, and is attempting to ensnare Petkanov with the dictator’s own totalitarian laws. But Petkanov is not beaten yet. He has been given his chance to fight back and he takes it with a vengeance, to the increasing discomfort and surprise of those around him. In this sharp, powerful novel Julian Barnes examines one for the most dramatic political downfalls of our times – that of Eastern Europe.’

I have read around four of Barnes’ books to date, and simply cannot make my mind up as to whether I enjoy him as an author.  Some of his works have definitely been better than others, although I must admit that my favourite so far has been The Sense of an Ending, which I only gave a three-star rating.  I borrowed The Porcupine from the library because it looked interesting and was relatively short.  I must admit that I wasn’t overly sold on it.

I liked the idea of a crumbling Soviet state described in the blurb far more than I enjoyed Barnes’ execution.  He can definitely write, but The Porcupine simply did not grab me at all.  It might perhaps had been better had it been longer, but if I’m honest, I’m not sure I would have had the patience to complete it had that been the case.  This novella could have presented some originality, but it read like rather a dull semi-historical account.  There is no real flair to the piece, as I have found with the majority of Barnes’ books which I have read.  To cut a long story short, he is an author whom I’m going to move to my ‘please avoid in order to avoid reading disappointment’ pile.

 

The Trick Is To Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway *****
9781784870133‘From the corner of a darkened room Joy Stone watches herself. As memories of the deaths of her lover and mother surface unbidden, life for Joy narrows – to negotiating each day, each encounter, each second; to finding the trick to keep living. Told with shattering clarity and wry wit, this is a Scottish classic fit for our time.’

I have wanted to read this for absolutely ages.  I am quite familiar with Galloway’s work, having read both volumes of her autobiographies which have been published thus far, and her collected short stories, but I hadn’t got to any of her novels before spotting this in the library.

I was expecting such to be the case, but The Trick Is To Keep Breathing is beautifully written from the beginning.  Indeed, from the first paragraph alone, I knew that I would be awarding it at least a four-star, if not a five-star review.  I must admit that I did have highly elevated hopes as to how good it would be, but it has wonderfully surpassed them all.  Galloway uses the stream-of-consciousness technique to great effect, rendering her narrator’s voice almost breathless at times.  This novel presents a simple premise, which has been both beautifully and believably executed.

There is an astounding amount of depth to it.  It is as though Galloway has clawed away at every inch of Joy in order to learn every little thing it is possible to know about her.  The Trick Is To Keep Breathing is not just a splendid novel; it is a masterpiece, and that is not a word that I apply to literature very often.

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