Beauty is on the razor’s edge in this superb novel to be treasured

“Some say the shape of the violet looks to the deepest and most hidden patterns of perfection in the universe.” These words are spoken by an old luthier working in a cave deep in a forest in 18th-century France, during the run-up to the Revolution. Twelve sections detailing his progress on a particular viola are delicately interwoven like smoke or water A thankless tool. This fascinating novel is Michael Meehan’s fifth, whose first, The salt of broken tearswon the NSW Premier’s Award for fiction in 2000.

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

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

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

Prodigy comes at a terrible price. The wild violence of the composer-musician father towards his wife, son and daughter seems demonic. The text doesn’t overtly play with the words “viol” and “violent,” but they may hum along into the reader’s ear.

An atmosphere of dread pervades the narrative, with the myth of Saturn eating his newborn children underlying it all. Jupiter, the son who was not swallowed, rose to overthrow his father. And Jupiter is the title of one of Forqueray’s best-known pieces. Father and son worked together in wild misery on composition and performance, the father insisting that there should be no manuscripts. A sad irony is that the Internet today offers free sheet music.

The adult Charlotte-Elisabeth opens the story with the seductive simplicity of “I want to tell a story.” She soon reveals that she has been mute since the age of seven, when her father brutally punished her for her inability to play the viola. He tore her hair, beat her with the viola, locked her up for days with only bread and water. “I never spoke again.” She becomes like “a shadow on a curtain”, “a curtain moving in the wind”.

She composes the story just as the luthier builds the viola. Her muteness, ironic in a tale of musical glory, is riveting, taking readers from within the characters’ horrific lives to a place of soaring creativity. Destruction and creation constantly play off each other, while readers are kept on the edge of the knife by foreboding.

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

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

Charlotte-Elisabeth’s story moves elegantly and harmoniously, on multiple layers of metaphor, back and forth in time, gradually unfolding a murky stream of what is now known as trauma. The father, forever recalling a flock of lawyers who flow “like dark and aromatic smoke”, first has his son imprisoned and then exiled. He longs for his daughter-in-law, the harpsichordist Marie-Rose Dupois.

The luthier, himself an outcast from the court, a man who served as a slave on the galleys, provides meticulous details of the viola’s construction, as well as murmuring lyrical words of wisdom. Starting from the forest, the tree becomes wood, it becomes the instrument, it becomes, with human action, music.

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