Does a book set in the early 1980s qualify as historical fiction? Does a book about a twenty-something woman’s romantic adventures, and search for direction, qualify as coming-of-age? The answer is probably yes to both. Certainly, it is within these parameters that it’s appropriate to discuss Diana Blackwood’s debut novel Chaconne.
Chaconne, as you can see, has a gorgeous cover. Rather than an image of a pretty young woman, promoting the idea of a “woman’s book”, it features a harpsichord – with an image of a Pershing (or similar) missile inside its open lid – sitting in a golden-lit rural landscape. This clues us into some important aspects of this novel, which are that music and war are involved. Of course, the title, Chaconne, also suggests a music theme. A chaconne, says Wikipedia, is “a type of musical composition popular in the baroque era when it was much used as a vehicle for variation on a repeated short harmonic progression, often involving a fairly short repetitive bass-line (ground bass) which offered a compositional outline for variation, decoration, figuration and melodic invention”. By this description, the “chaconne” works as a metaphor for Eleanor who is “sort of” progressing in her life, though with a deal of repetition, particularly in her way of choosing the wrong men and of bumbling along, without goal, from job to job. And within this main storyline are several interesting people and events which intervene along the way to add variety and decoration to the whole!
The novel starts with 24-year-old Eleanor arriving in Paris in 1981 to meet her lover, the bourgeois communist Julien whom she’d met a couple of years earlier in Sydney while he was an exchange student in Australia. Eleanor, who has “a fuzzy sense of being shut out of her proper story as if she had failed youth, been found wanting by life itself”, seems to have little direction in her life, though we know from flashbacks that she’s interested in music. One of her complaints against her mother, Mavis, and there are many, is that she’d stopped Eleanor’s piano lessons, replacing them with something she deemed more important for Eleanor’s education, maths tutoring! Escaping to Paris, though, is a bit of out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire, because Julien proves to be rather less than she thought. She finds herself spending much time alone in a tiny flat, relieved somewhat by her English teaching job at a lycée. Fortunately, her loneliness is assuaged a little by some lovely people, such as Rosa and the kind Monsieur Joubert who recognises her interest in music and starts, in a small way, her musical education.
As her relationship with Julien flounders, she meets Lawrence, an American who is flat-sitting for her next-door neighbour. It’s not long before she follows him to Germany, where he, a PhD student in deconstructive theory, is an English tutor on an American airforce base near a German village. The novel is set during the Cold War, when fear of nuclear destruction was high. Here Eleanor also obtains work teaching English. But, Lawrence – as we readers could have told her, just as we could have with Julien – doesn’t turn out to be the man she hoped.
Providing a background to Eleanor’s lacklustre romantic life is the unsettled political situation. Julien is engaged in communist politics, taking part in peace marches and the like, while Lawrence works on a military base where Eleanor keeps her Parisian life quiet and tries not to get too close to the base’s scary off-limit areas. Nonetheless she lives with “the unpalatable truth … that the nuclear umbrella was sheltering her by paying her rent.”
Not only does Lawrence draw her to this uncomfortable environment, but he is also not interested in music. What was she thinking in following him? Luckily, Eleanor finds a choir in the village, and her life gradually starts to change as she finally finds the thing that enlivens her.
And this is perhaps where the novel was a little problematical for me. While Eleanor’s journey to self-discovery was interesting, I never quite “felt” her sadness or her joy. I liked her, but I didn’t fully engage with her. This may be because she makes too many bad decisions that didn’t quite ring true for the intelligent young woman she clearly is. The coming-of-age felt a little late (particularly for the 1980s, which was before our 30-is-the-new-20 age?) But, this could just be sensible me speaking! Still, I would love to have seen more of her gutsy-but-also-life-challenged friend Ruth.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot to like about this book. I particularly enjoyed Blackwood’s obvious love of the English language. Eleanor and her Australian friend Ruth – not to mention her aforementioned mother – are grammar nazis (though that’s an unfortunate phrase given the post-war setting of this novel, a time when Germany was particularly uncertain about its past). The book delights in wordplay (including puns), alongside more serious discussions of grammar. Lawrence pegs Eleanor as “a proponent of prescriptive grammar” while she expects that “traditional grammar was another thing he would like to see tossed on the scrapheap”. The discussions Eleanor has about language are those we have here among the extended Gums’ family. We discuss language with each other, yell at the TV, argue about prescription versus description, ponder how and why language does or should or shouldn’t change. There are no answers but it’s fun exploring the issue.
Blackwood’s writing is also beautifully evocative, such as this description of Monsieur Joubert – “loneliness was close about him like a Parisian winter”. And this of the beginning of spring:
In the last few days spring has retreated. The quickening of the senses, the opening up to life and fate, had been dampened by chilling rain and the need to wear a jumper again.
This is exactly why I’m not a big fan of spring! It taunts with moments of warmth before plunging us all into cold again! Time and again Blackwood captured moments perfectly.
Chaconne, then, is an intelligent, well-written, well-structured book set in interesting times and places. I did like the cheeky metafictional reference to The catcher in the rye’s Holden Caulfield. Eleanor suggests that he needed “a firm but loving grandmother”. However, she also recognises that,
of course, the whole point of being a fictional character was to suffer misadventures and setbacks and humiliations without being bailed out by your grandmother, at least not until you’re sufficiently chastened.
Very true – and in the end our fictional character is – but no, I’ll not give it away.
Chaconne is book that should appeal to those who love Western Europe and baroque music, who remember the 1980s, and who like their romantic novels to be thoughtful and not neatly wrapped up. By the end, Eleanor has grown, but, as in life, we know she has yet more growing to do – and that’s the sort of ending I like.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this novel and includes two YouTube links to music referenced in the novel.
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2017
(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)
28 thoughts on “Diana Blackwood, Chaconne (#BookReview)”
Fantastic review of this book.
I remember the eighties as teenager. With that it seems so long ago and the world seemed so different. Intelligent young people (and older people!) certainly make a lot of ill conceived decisions today. Perhaps such bad judgement was less common back then.
Hi Brian, I’m glad to have bumped into you here… I loved your thoughts about the Palliser books but Blogger wouldn’t let me comment on it!
I love Brian’s reviews Lisa – thoughtful, in depth.
Thanks Brian. Yes, it’s surprising, reading this book, to see how different that world was. Thanks for making that point.
I’m delighted that you liked this too… it’s almost as if this book was written for you and me, ticking all our favourite boxes:)
And yes, what was she thinking?!
Haha, yes Lisa, it does.
I’m not sure being intelligent helps you make intelligent decisions. So many of us – well I – rush into things for all the wrong reasons, that I often wish I had been blessed with common sense instead.
Ah, good point Bill. I probably did make that mistake. Sometimes I think I have too much common-sense – like Elinor Dashwood!!
I think I might like this and I know I could be sucked into buying it because the cover is so gorgeous. I might see if our library has it as I do not know this author. I enjoyed your comments about not liking spring. I get so annoyed when springs bursts out all promising then I wake up to snow on the mountain. Enjoyed this!
The author has written short stories, Pam, but this is her first novel so you probably wouldn’t have heard of her. If you like Europe and Music, and you remember the 1980s (haha), then you will probably like this.
So glad you liked the spring quote.
I’d say yes to the 80’s being historical fiction as well, particularly if it’s especially reminiscent of the era.
Thanks Theresa. I agree. If the book makes a point of being set in an era, even one only 30 years ago, I think we should call it historical fiction. The 80s were pre the technologies we have today – emails were just starting – so it really was a different time. She mentions aerogrammes for holiday communications back home!!
I put “general fiction” when I linked it on AWW but wanted to put “historical fiction” really. However, our definition is middle of the twentieth century so I decided to stick with that.
I wonder if we need to rethink our definition? The Choke was marked as historical by readers, but set in late 70s. Your remark about pre-technology is a good basis too. It harks back to a very different existence.
I think I’ve marked later books that way too. I don’t think it would hurt to revisit it. There’s a problem too re “set”. A book written in the 1950s, for example, is not historical fiction as I understand it. Historical fiction needs to be written some time (how much is the issue) before its writing. Pride and prejudice, for example, is not historical. I think most people get it but I often do a little tweaking with older books, because people misunderstand the “set” business.
“The novel is set during the Cold War, when fear of nuclear destruction was high.”
The Cold War did warm up in the early 1980s, but never to the seriousness of the 1950s-60s. 1981-82 was most notable for the world-wide recession, the worst since the Great Depression of 1929-30.
In 1981 my 10-year old son, after watching the gloomy news, both about the progress of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan and the recession, said to me ‘Does this mean I won’t get a job when I grow up?’ When I was 10 in the 1950s, children were much more conscious of the threat of nuclear war (saw films of the mushroom clouds of atomic tests in newsreels at the pictures). My greatest fear was not growing up.
I would like to ‘like’ Jeanette’s comment.
You can do that Bill!!
Yes, good point Jeannette. I certainly remember the nuclear obliteration fear being greater a little earlier, but there was of course the Pershing Missile Crisis in the early 1980s. It may be that the fear was greater in Western Europe in the 1980s than we non-Europeans felt? Your description of your son’s and your ten-year-old-reflections is interesting, though.
My recollection of the 1980s, though perhaps a little further in, was the whole greed and masters-of-the-universe bit.
Hello there, my first comments here. I was at the end of my teens in the 80s and didn’t have a sense that the Cold War was such a big deal here in Australia. Our news is very parochial.
My husband lived in Scotland during that time and he said it was constantly in the news. Definitely a huge deal in Europe. 🙂 I was pretty clueless when I was Eleanor’s age. I think it was all about the hormones and going with the flow. Regards. Tracy.
Hi Tracy, welcome. Thanks for confirming my suspicion that it was more of an issue in Europe. I’m guessing Blackwood is from that era too and/or visited Europe then. I loved in the USA from 1983 to 1985, but that was just after the setting of this novel, but I don’t recollect the fear there then.
In 1980, there was the Moscow Olympics. I think a number of countries boycotted those Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1981, women set up a camp at the Greenham Common in the UK to protest the US military base where Cruise (nuclear) missiles were located. The Berlin Wall didn’t come down until 1989, so the Cold War still very much a happening thing in the 80s. So it was definitely a big thing. 🙂
Oh sure, Tracy, thanks. I know it was still a big thing, and clearly particularly so in Europe, which I suppose us not surprising! I certainly remember all those events. It was interesting in fact to be reminded of some of them in this book.
Hello, thanks for taking the time to review my novel Chaconne. I wonder if we need a new category: historically-informed fiction (cf historically-informed performance practice in the early music world). My primary focus was not the historical context, though I’m always interested in the interaction between social/political/historical factors and the individual psyche, but Eleanor’s bumpy emotional journey towards herself. As for the coming-of-age label, as much a publishing convenience as a plot type, how about the wising-up novel? Bill is right: intelligence does not dictate how sensibly people make decisions. Fictional characters, like real human beings, are driven in part by the murk of their emotions. Otherwise there would be no stories! Diana
Lovely to hear from you Diana. Thanks so much for providing your perspective. I was hoping you might see all the discussion here, because it’s been an engaged one. I love the idea of “wising-up novel”. It would suit many novels that don’t really fit the traditional “bildungsroman” but are about growing into one’s identity. And yes, that did come across as your main theme.
BTW I loved the “Saussure” and “snag” pun.
I look forward to seeing your next book.
Thanks, Sue. A friend of mine told me it was a terrible pun! BTW, I liked your take on the chaconne idea. Of course these categories are only really a problem for tagging, aren’t they? (I just wish I could expunge the image of Georgette Heyer novels that pops up when I think ‘historical fiction’, which of course is not nearly as irksome as what pops up with the tag ‘romance’.) Many more-or-less realist novels cover a lot of layered territory. The moment you write about place, for instance, you have entered the historical realm (see the opening paras of Hausmusik). Eleanor and Ruth, for reasons of their own — WWII has cast a long and malign shadow — do not, and indeed cannot, live in the ‘perpetual present’, as Hobsbawn accused young people of doing in the nineties.
I recommend Tony Judt’s great work Postwar, especially to those born in the eighties and beyond.
Well, your friend is wrong, wrong I say. I loved it!! But then I have a punning son and he tells me that I’m the only one who laughs at his terrible ones so perhaps you shouldn’t put much store by my praise!! Still, I did like it.
Glad you liked the chaconne idea.
I never did read Georgette Heyer but it is that sort of novel that I used to think of when I thought of historical fiction and would say I didn’t read it. I know better now. Romance though is still tricky. When I see the Romance description I still do run a mile – better to use coming-of-age (wising-up), or contemporary fiction, or historical fiction, if the book is not straight Romance I’d say.
I don’t know Tony Judt or Postwar but will investigate it (though I was born a little – hmmm – before the 80s.
I’m following up my earlier comment here because I don’t like the way the website indents responses, so that after a few you have one very narrow column!
I remember my son’s comment because I was taken aback by his reaction (the economy was more relevant that nuclear war), However, as a historian I was and am fascinated by differences in perceptions of times past in our own lives and by people in the generations above and below us. How can we understand long ago eras if we have contradictions over the short term? This is an issue for both historians and writers of historical fiction.
The 60s is generally agreed now as a time of significant change. At the time it was fun, the music of course; optimistic politics – revolutions in eastern Europe. But this really came home to me in the mid 90s, when I was taken to dinner by a male colleague half my age, (50 v 25) as a thank you for some assistance I’d given him. But, it appeared he had a hidden agenda: “What I really want is to ask you, what was it like being alive in the 60s?” Right. I think I disappointed him, by stuttering, well, it felt normal. Of course, in the 60s we didn’t know that there was going to be something special about being alive in the 60s.
I think the time immediately before we are born is often a far-away land. I came across a newspaper article recently which was entitled ‘Life in Ye Olde Days’. The article was written in 1911, and ‘ye olde days’ being referred to were just 32 years earlier, in 1879. But think of the changes in that short time: the first automobile in 1885, the first radio broadcast in 1906, the development of powered flight in the 1890s-1900s, not so dissimilar to the rate of technological change since 1980. 1879 was ye olde days!
Finally another anecdote relating to 1981, or to be accurate, 1982. I was lucky enough to be part of two of the earliest non-political scientific exchange trips to China after Australia opened diplomatic relations, in 1975 and 1982. The change we saw in China was radical between those years. Although the Vietnam War had just ended in 1975, and the 1981 Cold War tension was recent, there was no influence or mention of those events on our trip, or on the people we met, as far as we could see. We were in China in late November 1975, and what people wanted to talk about was the Whitlam overthrow, and who would get in at the election. (OK we were talking to academics and researchers). I remember a conversation in Xian in 1982 with a total stranger, an engineering student who wanted to practice his English, while I was walking one evening in a park near the hotel (now that would have been impossible in 1975!). He asked questions about English idioms, Shakespeare, and ‘how did the French get the Statue of Liberty to New York’. Good thing I knew that the French had given it to America!
However the change In China can best be summed up by the advertising bill boards I photographed at a major roundabout in Guangzhou. In 1975 they were the standard patriotic images of workers and farmers and the red flag. In 1982 these had been replaced by huge ads for Toyotas and Adidas.
So, back to the question: Does a book set in the 1980s qualify as historical fiction? Absolutely.
Haha Jeannette. Love your long answer to the short question. And in a word – or two – I agree!
Thanks though for sharing your experiences. I think you are right about not really knowing the import of one’s own time. My bother, though, who is 6 years younger than I and so didn’t enter his teens until the 1970s once said he wished he’d had that time in the 60’s. I couldn’t disagree. They were exciting – particularly in retrospect – and I’m glad I have those memories. They really have informed much of who I am today.