‘Blackbirds sing fabulous intricate jewellery songs; a shower of emeralds, a cascade of silver’ – The Song House by Trezza Azzopardi

Some books do not tell straightforward linear stories. ‘What really happened’ is revealed slowly, and that revelation turns out to be the point of the book. Like a good crime novel there are hints and clues along the way, but it is only at the end that everything becomes clear. There has to be a reason for the slow revelation, of course – the suppressed memories of a child who goes through something terrifying is a popular device (as in Jill Dawson’s excellent Watch Me Disappear) and Trezza Azzopardi partly uses this ‘suppressed memory’ conceit too. 

One of the protagonists of The Song House, Maggie, knows that there is a reason she can’t properly recall her past, but it is only when her mother dies that she feels she is at last at liberty to investigate. She returns to a house she knew when an elderly man, Kenneth, advertises for a personal assistant. Kenneth wants to put his record collection in order, because he too wants to revisit his past – and here Azzopardi brilliantly uses another device for the slow reveal: as we age our minds sometimes uncover old hidden memories.  It is as if the brain is slowly shrinking back, and with this retreat scenes long-forgotten are suddenly and spectacularly recalled.  Kenneth imagines his mind as ‘a dark cell – no many, many cells – the shape of a Panopticon; each cell positioned so that the prisoner is available for scrutiny.  A thousand former Kenneths jostling for space.  He would be gaoler, too, and idea he relishes for the power it bestows.  He’s there as overseer. to keep his memories from escaping, wreaking havoc, murdering each other.‘ 

The missing fragments of Kenneth’s and Maggie’s memories are linked and the way in which Trezza Azzopardi does this is clever, subtle and convincing.  It is part of a set of fine concluding chapters,  in which the desire to turn pages and discover becomes more and more urgent.  The clues come together with some expert writing and the ending, although not exactly surprising, is satisfying.  The motives of each of the characters becomes understandable – each one a victim to circumstance and misunderstanding.  The setting – of a series of houses by a river – is used to great effect and there are shades of both Graham Swift and George Elliot in the way the river can be at one time benign – too feeble to wash away a child – and at another powerful enough to hold an entire community in thrall.  

At the start the characters seem mysterious and their behaviour intense and strange – the effect of damage from the past.  They move tentatively around each other – both verbally and physically – until the elderly man fancies himself to be in love.  Passages of deliberately overblown description evoke his sentimental state: ‘blackbirds sing fabulous intricate jewellery songs; a shower of emeralds, a cascade of silver‘, and the reader shares their efforts to establish who they are and where they stand.  After this the scenes and the characters solidify and become utterly convincing. By this stage numerous subtle barbs have succeeded in entrapping the reader – and there is no possible escape but to read unto the end.

Any Cop?  Most definitely.  After a few pages you will find yourself happily ensnared in a clever and fascinating story.

Clare Dudman

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