Monday, February 23, 2009

The Virtuoso
By Sonia Orchard
HarperCollins, $29.99

An extraordinary story of obsessive love in post-war London, The Virtuoso is based around a fictionalised version of the life of Australian piano prodigy Noel Mewton-Wood.

The novel opens in London during the Blitz as the unnamed narrator is taken by his father to a series of concerts and recitals staged in a bid to boost morale in the war-torn city. This sparks in him a lifelong passion both for music and for talented boy pianist Mewton-Wood whose performance deeply affects him.

What begins as hero worship grows into something else as our narrator, now a music student, comes to the realisation that he is homosexual. He enjoys a brief affair with the charismatic object of his affections, is quickly discarded and never gets over it, tangling his life up with Mewton Wood and his circle despite the pianist’s rampant promiscuity, so certain is he that they are destined to end up together.

If you’ve never heard of Mewton-Wood (and I hadn’t) you only have to Wikipedia him to find a bald version of his biography. I suggest you don’t bother. Instead enjoy the way Orchard guides this rich and gorgeously-written tale towards its inevitable conclusion.
As a period piece The Virtuoso is fascinating. It captures a rarefied world of wealthy, artistic men who were prey to both desperate melancholy and the pernicious anti-homosexuality laws of the time. Orchard also dares to give us a narrator who is unreliable and far from likeable: often dishonest, almost always self-obsessed and probably alcoholic.

The book resounds with music, with vignettes from the lives of the great composers threaded through it and evocative descriptions of their work. There’s been a lot of meticulous research here but the author has a light hand and never trowels on so much detail she risks losing the non-musical reader.
This trend for novelists to exploit real lives can put them on perilous ground but Orchard has done a deft job of marrying fact and fiction, and of waking up the world to a forgotten talent. She herself has advised readers to listen to the narrator’s story as you would a drunk at a party, so buying herself the freedom to blur the edges of the real-life story.
A beautifully composed tale from a talented Australian writer that is likely to leave many readers longing to hear Mewton-Wood’s recordings.

Review by NZ novelist and books editor Nicky Pellegrino whose novel The Italian Wedding (Orion) will, be published in April.

This review was first published on 22 February in the Herald on Sunday and is reproduced with their permission.

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