The beauty in this excellent novel hangs on a knife edge that needs to be guarded

“There are those who say that the shape of the viola looks at the deepest, most hidden patterns of perfection in the universe.” These words were spoken by an old luthier working in a cave deep in the woods in France in the 18th century, during the beginning of the Revolution. The twelve sections detailing his progress on a particular viola are delicately woven like smoke or water A thankless instrument. This enchanting novel is the fifth from Michael Meehan, whose first, The salt of broken tearswon the NSW Premier’s Prize for Fiction in 2000.

The lyrical narrator is a historical figure, Charlotte-Elisabeth Forqueray, the older sister of Jean-Baptiste, daughter of Antoine Forqueray. Both father and son were child prodigy musicians at the court of Louis XIV. Scenes of splendor at Versailles are dramatically undermined by visions of dark torment and wanton filth in the private lives of the Forquerays.

Michael Meehan's An Ungrateful Instrument keeps readers on the edge of foreboding.

Michael Meehan’s An Ungrateful Instrument keeps readers on the edge of foreboding.

Prodigy has a terrible price tag. The savage violence of the composer-musician father towards his wife, son and daughter looks demonic. The text does not openly play with the words “viola” and “violent”, but they can hum together in the reader’s ear.

An atmosphere of fear pervades the narrative, and behind it all is the myth of Saturn eating his newborn children. Jupiter, the unswallowed son, rose to overthrow his father. AND Jupiter is the title of one of Forqueray’s most famous works. Father and son worked together in wild misery to compose and perform, and the father insisted that there should be no manuscripts. It is a sad irony that the internet today offers music tracks for free.

The grown-up Charlotte-Elisabeth begins the story with the stunning simplicity of “I want to tell a story.” She soon discovers that she has been mute since the age of seven when her father cruelly punished her for not knowing how to play the viola. He pulled out her hair, beat her with a viola, locked her up for days with only bread and water. “I didn’t speak again.” It becomes like a “shadow on a curtain”, a “curtain that moves in the wind”.

She composes the story even as a luthier constructs a viola. Her silence, ironic in its depiction of musical fame, is compelling, taking readers from the characters’ horrific lives to a place of elevated creativity. Destruction and creation constantly play off each other, while readers are on a knife edge of foreboding.

The splendor of Versailles in Michael Meehan's novel is undermined by the anguish in the lives of its historical characters.

The splendor of Versailles in Michael Meehan’s novel is undermined by the anguish in the lives of its historical characters.Credit:

Charlotte-Elisabeth’s story moves together with elegance and harmony, on several levels of metaphor, back and forth in time, while gradually unraveling the murky flow of what is now known as trauma. The father, forever referring to the flock of lawyers that flows “like dark and aromatic smoke”, first imprisons and then banishes his son. He longs for his daughter-in-law, the harpsichordist Marie-Rose Dupois.

The luthier, himself an exile from the court, a man who served as a slave on the galleys, provides minute details on the making of the viola, as well as muttering lyrical words of wisdom. Starting from the forest, the tree becomes a tree, becomes an instrument, becomes, with the help of human action, music.

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