Sunday, 26 October 2008

Songs of Blue and Gold by Deborah Lawrenson

I must confess to a strong sense of personal bias about Deborah Lawrenson’s Songs of Blue and Gold since it features a character who, though highly fictionalised, is clearly (and Lawrenson openly admits this) based on Lawrence Durrell, without doubt my favourite novelist. Like me, she particularly admires the Alexandria Quartet, which she transposes for her character, Julian Adie, into the Cairo Triptych. However, let me say that regardless of the Durrell perspective, I really enjoyed reading this book.

The basic premise is a detective story. Melissa, the central character, undergoes a traumatic combination of events in which, in short order, her marriage breaks up, her mother develops Alzheimer’s disease and has to go into a home, and then the mother dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Just before leaving home for the last time she presses one of Adie’s books into her daughter’s hands. It bears a cryptic inscription in the author’s own handwriting that suggests that she and Adie may have been lovers, and been privy to some great secret that must never be revealed.

This serves as a device to have Melissa go to stay on Corfu and begin rooting around for the truth. To say more would be risk giving away key aspects of the plot. Suffice it to say that the narrative is well-constructed and leaves the reader always eager to start the next chapter for the next layer of truth to be peeled away. This is despite continual shifting between time and place which in the hands of a less accomplished writer could be very confusing.

The references to Durrell’s own life and works, and those of his naturalist brother, are very well handled. Like me, Lawrenson has read and enjoyed the biographies, both the official one by Ian McNiven and the unauthorised, and thus less sanitised one by Gordon Bowker. The first three wives are all drawn from the pages of those biographies; only the names have been changed.

The parts of the book that I enjoyed most were the descriptions of first Melissa and then her mother (later in the book, but first chronologically, of course) on Corfu. There was a sense of immediacy, and that here was a world in which Lawrenson thoroughly believed and felt at home. It also helps, of course, that she is a very fine writer with more than a hint of Durrell about her own prose.

Time and truth are elastic. I could feel that strongly here, sitting on the rocks on which they once sat and which he described so alluringly, peeling away the layers of the present and the past. The slippage of years is like the strong undertow of the sea over steeply shelving beach.

I had a little more difficultly with the other parts of the book, particularly those describing Melissa’s present day problems with her husband. Perhaps it is just that so many books have been written about women in similar situations by women authors that the whole genre is in danger of becoming almost a pastiche of itself. Perhaps also these parts suffer in comparison to the Corfu scenes because the latter are so vibrant and unique. Whatever the case, I thought the husband was in danger of becoming almost a stereotype male figure; in particular we never really understand his motivation (though there are third party points of view, all from women) for acting as he does. I am not suggesting this is Lawrenson’s fault, simply that this particular theme has been done to death over the last twenty years and that to say something new about it has thus become an enormous challenge.

Again, without giving away too much of the plot, the identity of the man with whom Melissa will end the story happily ever after is obvious from a very early stage to anyone who has ever read a Jilly Cooper story (I deliberately am not using the world “novel”). I could not help wondering whether such a well-worn formulaic approach might have been forced upon the author by her agent or publisher, anxious to create a “commercial” book. Personally, I found myself saying “oh no, not that” and almost wishing for an unhappy, or at least unresolved ending, but then perhaps I am just a hardened old cynic.

Congratulations to Deborah Lawrenson for having written such a hugely enjoyable book. My last point is strictly speaking nothing to do with the book itself but about its packaging. Publishers today seemed obsessed with brands, and with squeezing a book into one rather than letting its merits speak for itself. This book has very clearly been labelled and packaged as chick-lit romantic fiction (whereas it is undeniably a serious literary novel) and I must confess that had I picked it up in a bookshop I almost certainly would not have bought it. Publishers should beware the old legal maxim expressio unius, exclusio alterius.

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