Saturday, 26 July 2014

Facing the music

Sedition is a fabulous romp of a novel that reminds me of Sarah Waters' debut, Tipping the Velvet; it's mock-historical, not in the sense that any individual incident is strictly historically inaccurate, but due to the cumulative effect of its plotting, which plays out strikingly modern themes. It's late eighteenth-century London and five young women are seeking a match. Their fathers conspire to educate them on the pianoforte so they can wow society and make wonderful matches. However, the men have more money than sense, and the pianoforte maker, and more specifically, his daughter Annie, has plans of her own. Conversely, the five girls are not innocent victims. While the plot pivots around their virginity, they are far from ignorant or even likeable. Alathea, manipulative and secretive, stands out from the crowd, but does not seem to know what she ultimately hopes to gain. Meeting Annie, however, throws everything into perspective.

The sheer energy of the narrative makes Sedition an enjoyable read, and although there are some very dark moments in the novel, it's not told straight enough for these to be truly disturbing. Katharine Grant tells her story as if she is writing a bawdy ballad or folk-song; it has resonance, and we identify with the characters and want them to succeed (or fail), but the telling does not have enough realism to make us truly suffer with them. It's a strategy that works remarkably well. The initially schematic characterisation of the five girls unfolds into something much more interesting, and Annie is a highlight from the start, suffering over her hare lip but determined to seek her fortune nonetheless. Grant is also clever enough to avoid the pitfalls that dog most historical novels. Partly, as I've suggested, this is because this is a mock-historical, and partly, it's through the skill of the writing, which conjures the atmosphere of Georgian London without getting bogged down in detail, or saying too little. Like Waters, she uses genre to capture the sense of a period; this story would not have worked if it were set in the mid-nineteenth century, just as Waters exploited the crime conventions of that period when she wrote Fingersmith. The other comparison that occurs to me is David Mitchell's fantastic The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet; this is a very different novel, but pulls off the same trick of not letting the author's imagination be confined by the historical setting.

I know little about music, and this book might mean more to someone who is more musical; music is embedded in its metaphors as well as in its plot line. Nevertheless, this was no hindrance to following the story, and the ending seemed both inevitable, and totally fitting. I look forward to reading more from Grant.

I received a free digital copy of this novel via NetGalley.

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