The Courage Consort

The Courage Consort - Michel Faber This collection of three novellas actually rates a 3.5 from me; the writing is definitely above-average. I suspect that my problem is partially with the form itself: the narratives are not short enough to be short stories with a "zing" - that focus that E.A. Poe talks about - nor are they long enough to make plot complexity a necessity. So bear in mind that I may simply be a grumpy reader in not giving an out-and-out 4.

Of the three, I enjoyed the title novella, "The Courage Consort," the most. It's a character study of sorts, of a group of singers in a King's Singers-like a capella group, but one that contains women, and one that takes its mission more seriously (according to their leader), tackling atonal twentieth/twenty-first century music. There is a newbie in the otherwise long-standing circle, a young German woman named Dagmar, an individualist who brings her baby along to their rehearsal "retreat" in a European house. Faber gives this set-up considerable interest by making his POV character self-doubting and possibly unreliable - she's Catherine, the soprano and the wife of Roger Courage, the leader of the group. We get to speculate a bit about what is causing her self-doubts: she fantasizes suicide a couple of times, she rejects sexual overtures from her husband, and she hears a child's cry in the night, possibly a confirmation of local legend - possibly also triggered by the nearness of Dagmar's baby?

Anyway, the last two members of the Consort - a rather grouchy, possibly gay tenor named Julian, and a quiet, overweight basso named Ben - seem at first glance the least interesting. But it is actually Ben's passing that produces the main movement of the plot, and we see that Catherine is not quite so incompetent as she fears, for it is she who manages to bring back the Consort from their depression, at least a little way, by finding a summer song - interestingly the most ancient possible - that they spontaneously sing. There is also a wonderfully satiric passage earlier on about the visit of the self-aggrandizing, incomprehensible composer.

The second novella, "The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps", is also told from the point-of-view of a female character who is undergoing some mental disturbance. In this case it is grotesque nightmares about being murdered in her sleep. It later transpires that these mirror a story of a local (apparent) murder of a young girl by her father - he does it to prevent her from appearing to be a suicide, which she is. This story, when it emerges (from a bottle) crystallizes the differences in life philosophy between Sian and Magnus, the young man she fears she is attracted to. Sian is seriously wounded, both physically (an amputated leg) and spiritually, by a previous relationship in Bosnia. The steps of the title lead up to the archaeological dig on which Sian works, digging up bodies, but they also represent her efforts to elevate herself towards something of the emotional austerity and discipline of St. Hilda and her monastery (the site of the dig). This is another point of contention with Magnus. The imp in me adored that the resolution of the relationship was that Sian accepted and renamed Magnus' dog Hadrian (whom she adores in a thoroughly sensual manner), but she let the man go, hoping he would eventually mature to her tastes.

I did not find the third novella, "The Fahrenheit twins" much to my taste. It's very clever, bringing us to the eventual conclusion that the self-sufficient, ritual-obsessed, 10-year-old twins (Marko'cain and Tainto'lilith!), who live on a completely remote northern island, with their ethnologist parents, are actually the biological children of a nearby aboriginal father and their now-dead European mother, who has more than likely been murdered by their nominal father, Fahrenheit. But no-one in the story is remotely appealing, which is likely exactly what was intended. There's a certain humour in the kids' blunt, perceptive prattle that keeps the story from being outright bleak, but bleak it still is.