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.
(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)