In the freezing cellars of the palace, musicians play unseen for the haunted, cash-strapped Christian IV of Denmark. Meanwhile, his beautiful but petulant consort, Kirsten, plays out wild fantasies with her lover. In a stately home in Ireland, Countess O'Fingal mourns her husband's insane pursuit of a tune heard in a dream. She calls for the lutenist Peter Claire to help cure him but Claire leaves to join Christian's chamber orchestra, where he falls in love with Kirsten's only friend.
It is this part of King Christian IV’s reign (1629 - 1630) which serves as the backdrop to Rose Tremain’s Whitbread/Costa Award winning novel Music and Silence. This lush story is told from multiple points of view. The manipulative and seductive Kirsten Munk is introduced through her journal entries. Her self-centered musings create a character who is perhaps one of the most intriguing villains in literature…one who is blackly humorous, yet ultimately sad.
The reader also meets Peter Claire - an English lutenist who arrives in Denmark to become part of the royal orchestra - only to become smitten with Kirsten’s female companion Emilia. Throughout the narrative, Tremain intersperses the life of the King in his youth (and his friendship with Bror Brorson which haunts him), with his dreams, turmoils and fears of adulthood.
In Tremain’s competent hands, this historical novel becomes a symphony of romantic twists and turns, and a saga which encompasses all the excesses and political intrigue of royal life in seventeenth century Europe. Tremain explores such complex themes as order vs. chaos, love vs. hate, dreams vs. reality, and betrayal vs. loyalty - all through the metaphor of music and silence. The novel’s thematic elements are connected beautifully to setting, as when King Christian journeys to Norway to spearhead the development of a silver mine during the harsh winter months. He gazes at a waterfall - the Isfoss - which has frozen solid, and imagines the tiny crystals of ice forming in the roaring water.
'They acquire thickness, length and weight. The water is transparent clay, moulding them, layer upon layer, and as the layers accumulate, the roar of the river has become muffled. The human ear has to strain to hear it. And then, in the space of a single night, it falls silent.' -From Music and Silence, page 107-
It is the beauty of these kinds of images which transform Tremain’s novel from an historical piece of fiction into an extraordinary work of literature. Music and Silence is exceptionally wrought - a delicious tale which I highly recommend.
One weak point is the central love story - two idealised characters in a love at first site scenario which is never sufficiently filled out. Far more involving is a minor subplot of Peter's sister and her fiancee - two seemingly ordinary people who see and bring out the extraordinary in each other. King Christian is also strongly drawn, a man disappointed by life and beginning to despair of rebuilding his kingdom. The real star though is the King's thoroughly disturbed and disturbing wife Kirsten, who is full of manipulation, seduction and despair, and is the keeper of a very amusing diary.
Peter Claire, an English lutenist, finds himself in the role of 'angel' to the King and strives to find meaning and destiny whilst being loyal.
This is a long book (+450 pages), superbly written in a lyrical prose style. Set in 17th century Denmark, it’s well-researched and brilliantly conveys what life must have been like in that time. In addition, it cleverly hints at correlations between that corrupt world and today’s world.
From the historical King Christian IV of Denmark to the fictitious English lutenist, Peter Claire, the characters are richly drawn and interesting. Although there is no dramatic plot to follow -indeed, the story itself doesn’t even follow a linear path, but jumps around from character to character – there is a strong element of both love and discreet eroticism woven through the story. The sweep of human emotions keep one turning the pages as one is drawn into the complexity of not only the vast array of characters, but of human nature itself.
Tremain’s beautiful style is, mostly, easy to read, although at times she was long-winded. Her ability to change tenses effortlessly was impressive. Whether writing in first person present or third person past, Tremain kept the text so fluid the shifts were hardly noticeable. I did, however, find her addiction to the “:” as a punctuation mark distracting.
These are minor issues, though, because ultimately the fluid and haunting “Music and Silence” can be read again and again. Each reading will, I'm sure, produce some new gem to savour. I would highly recommend it when you have enough leisure time to linger over the pages.
The narrative is structured as fairy-tale, based around journeys, innocence and worldliness, loves lost and found, trials and redemption, but with more subtle insights into the workings of the human heart. This is a lovely book with memorable characters; none more so than Kirsten, who I found myself rooting for more and more as the book progresses. She's not bad, she's just written that way.
Like many fairy tales there is an abrupt and 'they lived happily ever after' ending that I found shocking and short-changed by at first. With reflection I began to see this as a more ambiguous ending, where lives are not always neatly squared off and are sometimes left hanging and uncertain.
Given the title and occupation of the main character, there is very little music in this book.
On the other hand, I did enjoy Tremain's portrayal of Christian IV, and Kirsten Munk is one of the most detestable yet entertaining characters I have ever read about.
On the one hand, the writing is quite good. This book works better in longer reading stints, and not so well in stolen five to fifteen minute reading breaks. The characters are well drawn for the most part, and yet many times it’s easy to remain somewhat detached from some of the characters you are actually rooting for. I’m not one for interweaving superstition and magical realism into historical fiction, an there is at least one thing that happens that people back then thought happened that has been proven not so.