No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

2012/14: Last Movement -- Joan Aiken

Imagine you thought you were living in a house ... doing your normal job, pursuing your ordinary life, peaceful and unobserved -- and suddenly you found that all the time you had really been a kind of exhibit at a zoo, with people studying everything you had done through a glass wall, laughing at you and everything connected with you, because it was so grotesque and peculiar. (p.182)
Priscilla Meiklejohn -- known as Mike -- has never really connected with her mother, even after the deaths of her father and elder sister thirteen years ago. When she's summoned to an emergency ward where her mother lies gravely injured, she has little to say. But in her mother's desk there's a letter addressed to Mike, to be opened only in the event of her mother's death.

Of course she opens it.

Turns out her father's not dead after all: 'the way in which he is still alive may be a terrible shock to you'. (p. 43). And while Mike is still coming to terms with this news, her mother makes enough of a recovery to contemplate a convalescent journey to warmer climes: to Greece, where Mike spent her formative adolescent years while her sister (as she's lately discovered from her mother's friend) committed suicide and her mother locked everything away.

Mike's narrative is first-person: the story of the other protagonist, Julia, is told in the third person. Julia, a well-known playwright, has been through an acrimonious and very public divorce (she was formerly Lady Julia) and is honeymooning with her new husband, the mysterious Dikran, on the Greek isle of Dendros. When Dikran suffers an amnesiac episode and begins to behave strangely, a local doctor invites the couple to spend some time at Helikon, the music centre and clinic which he runs.

Mike and her mother also find themselves at Helikon, under the care of Dr Adnan, who Mike recalls fondly from her teenage years. Other visitors include an aged composer who's set on producing his opera, Les Mysteres d'Elsinore despite the apparent 'curse' that blights any singer who takes the role of Hamlet; a sociology professor from Baton Rouge who insists on photographing everybody; and Kerry Farrell, a mezzo-soprano who's soared to stardom in the last few years.

Then there's a murder, and a revelation, and a high-speed chase on precipitous mountain roads ...

While it's pretty straightforward to identify the villain of this novel, it's never that simple with Joan Aiken. Dr Adnan is given to plain speaking, and refuses to collude in his patients' pretences. The smallest details -- sunflower seeds, a masseur who recognises the signs of plastic surgery, letters as plot devices in the novels of Jane Austen, a pianist improvising behind a closed door -- are weighted with significance. Mike is a likeable character, as is Julia (though because of that third-person narrative we don't get as close to Julia as to Mike). And the twist, the discovery that Mike makes about her father, came as a complete surprise to me -- though, with hindsight, the whole novel leads up to it. After that revelation, the romantic denouement felt trivial (and, to be honest, rather less convincing).

Several of the characters in Last Movement are deliberately, authentically bigotted; the novel was written and is set in the late 1970s, when prejudice and bigotry were more acceptable than they are now. One of the characters, in particular, holds views I find extraordinarily repugnant: just as though I'd encountered her in real life, I couldn't think of her the same way after she'd made those views known.

Despite the cover -- mine has good-looking people in evening dress, a Greek temple, a dead body and a full moon -- this is not a 'novel of romantic suspense' [sic], though those elements are present. It focusses more on Mike and the changes that bring her true maturity. And perhaps it's a novel about deceit, about the lie in plain view, about what we let ourselves see and recognise.

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