Joyce Hackett; Susanna Jones; Marion Zimmer Bradley

26th September 2003

So what have I been reading for pleasure while finishing my own new novel? I used to be concerned with finding a book that matched the tone of my own in some way. That need seems to have faded. Just give me something fresh to enjoy.

Two of the novels were curiously linked. Joyce Hackett's Disturbance of the Inner Ear and Susanna Jones's The Earthquake Bird both had young female cellists as the protagonists, though shocks to their lives had set them at some degree of separation from their music.

Disturbance of the Inner Ear attracted me because its theme is so like one I am working with myself - a play based around cello music, the holocaust and a concentration camp. Joyce Hackett has been compared to Jane Bowles. I see it in the style of the work, though Jane Bowles has a wild humour you won't find here. The woman and her cello are curiously akin; both are wonderful yet neglected instruments, played by others but never really letting their own genius out. The novel shifts to a concentration camp for its final scene. The music that has been bursting to be played throughout the book is finally released. The book is intense and filled with heartache. Finish a book such as this, and you want to send the author some flowers.

My copy was mailed to me from the USA, though a UK edition has just been released. The Earthquake Bird came to me in a different way. I stood in a London bookstore, picked it up without thinking, and the right side of my face became electric, a shaft of energy passed down through the crown of my head. I am prone to odd occurrences, but have never had such an effect from picking up a book before.

I am glad for this book. Occasionally I find a woman writer with an astonishingly clear voice yet weird outlook on the world (I suppose that is how I see Jane Bowles too). Janice Elliot was one, Jane Gardam another, Patricia Highsmith, Emily Bronte, all women touched by Englishness somehow. Susanna Jones is another. The Earthquake Bird is tense, taut as a cello string, a murder mystery that gifts a contemporary sense of Japan and draws you deep inside the psyche of its protagonist. The book is like sushi - spare, raw, weird, the very opposite of comfort food but the moment you brave it and start eating you want more.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Catch Trap, from 1979, was my comfort food through the summer. It's soap opera but classy, soap opera with a difference - maybe the Queer as Folk of the '70s. I doubt that a better novel has ever been written about the circus. It was astonishing and wonderful that a woman could have put in that degree of research, have captured 20th century circus life so completely, yet made the central thrust of the book a gay love story. A catch trap is where the catcher swings in a trapeze act, and the lovers are two trapeze artists. We follow their relationship through the strong but turbulent course of their lives. Theirs was no era in which to be gay, the sexuality brings trauma, but it is an overwhelmingly positive book. Over 688 pages in my fine print paperback edition, Marion Zimmer Bradley kept me keenly interested in the drama through to the book's close. I am a fan of lean prose, but have tried in my new novel to fatten up a bit. This was a good example of a big book stocked full of characters and their dramas, that stayed juicy through and through.

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