An Equal Music (by Vikram Seth)

I’m not entirely sure how this book came to be on my ‘to read’ shelves. I think it was given to me by a friend, who found it second-hand, a few years ago. I’d vaguely heard of the author, Vikram Seth, but had not read any of his books and they’re not in genres that would naturally appeal to me. So this particular book sat on my ‘to read’ shelf, until I randomly selected it for the next novel to read.

‘An Equal Music’ is told in the first person, in the present tense, by a thirty-something musician called Michael. He plays second violin in a prestigious string quartet, a demanding but enjoyable role. The people he is closest to, emotionally, are the other members of the quartet: the first violinist Piers, Piers’ sister Helen, who plays viola, and Billy, the cellist. Piers is gay, Helen has a boyfriend, and Billy has a wife and child. Michael has an on-off affair going with a rather younger student, but can never forget his first love, the brilliant pianist Julia, whom he has not seen for nearly ten years….

Chance - and music - brings them together. Julia is married with a child, and has a secret she isn’t, at first, willing to reveal; but she and Michael are drawn together in an illicit affair, cemented together by their shared love of classical music.

Michael loves Julia, but he also loves his violin, which is on long-term loan from an elderly friend who first taught him to love music. One day, she tells him, it will go to her materialistic nephew and his daughters…

And really, that’s it as far as the plot goes. There are many subplots; flashbacks and commentary about the past, a trip for the quartet to both Austria and Italy, the discovery of some little-known music, a recording contract… and many rehearsals where we see quite intimately into the way the lives of a quartet are intertwined, almost like a marriage.

I finished reading it today, and am still not entirely sure how I feel about it. It’s a powerful novel of love and loss, of friendship and betrayal, and - above all - of music. It’s draining at times, and also uplifting; in a sense it’s written like a piece of music, Michael’s music and his love-life reflecting and resounding from each other. By the end, I could barely put it down. The ending comes suddenly, after rather too much rhetoric (in my view) and didn’t quite tie up all the ends, but perhaps that was deliberate.

But although the writing is excellent, the story well-paced, and some parts quite moving, I found the characters oddly flat. Michael is believable enough; he’s highly emotional and rather volatile, but that does sometimes go with great artistes, and he’s exceptionally gifted as a violinist. But Julia doesn’t seem to have any motivation for what she does, and it was hard to see why Michael loves her so much. I can see he might have idealised her in their long separation, but when they meet again, he seems even more besotted with her, yet in a selfish way, wanting her to take risks and sacrifice her happiness for his sake.

Some of the music terminology went over my head, and I’m not familiar with most of the pieces mentioned, but that wasn’t a problem. However I’m sure that lovers of classical music would find a great deal more in this novel than I did.

My biggest problem, really, was that some sections were quite wordy, almost irrelevant. I realise this is a literary novel, and I’m never entirely clear what that means, nor what the motivation is for literary writing. But still, some short sections could, in my view, have been cut entirely without any loss to the novel - unless, perhaps, they were included to show Michael’s confused and sometimes wandering mind.

Overall, though, I'd recommend it; particularly for fans of classical music.

Review copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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