This one’s all about the numbers. The 3rd blog post in a row about the Canongate catalogue, a small homage on my part to mark their 40 years in publishing. It is also number 26 in my progress through books I associate with EIBF over the years – target is 30 by the end of the year to mark the 30th year of the Edinburgh Book Festival. I may have bought this on Michel Faber’s personal recommendation in the Canongate Popup Shop in 2011 (story here) but he was chair at Jenny Erpenbeck’s event that same year. So I’ve seen him on an EIBF stage – it counts!
And then there’s the fact that this fits in so well with my Sinister September reading. The first page is far too long to quote but it’s a real shocker. It leaves the main protagonist, Siân sitting blot upright in bed. Me too.
Siân is a troubled soul, wounded both physically and emotionally from her experiences in Bosnia. Returning to Britain alone, she joins an archaeological dig in Whitby. Each day she must climb the 199 steps to the abbey – a staircase which serves the purpose of transporting her from her unhappy present to a happier future via a distracting gothic mystery from the past. On those steps she meets and befriends Mack, a bit of a hunk, and Hadrian, his lush of a dog. Mack is dealing with his own emotional issues. He is in town from London winding up the estate of his recently deceased and estranged father. Let it be said he is chalk to Siân’s cheese and their friendship/potential romance would be a non-starter if weren’t for an old bottle which contains a fragile manuscript. Mack seeking to extend his time with Siân agrees to let her extract the manuscript to see what it contains. And it’s an intriguing mystery linked to Whitby’s vampiric past with parallels to Siân’s own story.
There isn’t a happy ending and that signals the outcome for Siân and Mack but the time spent unravelling the manuscript allows Siân to establish a second relationship which will satisfy her emotional needs.
The second novella, The Courage Consort, also concerns itself with emotional healing. Middle-aged Catherine Courage is feeling suicidal. Dissatisfaction with her childless marriage and her controlling husband lie at the heart of her problem. Once again there’s a sit up and take notice beginning. This time I can quote it as it is only a sentence long.
On the day the good news arrived, Catherine spent her first few waking hours toying with the idea of jumping out of the window of her apartment.
The Courage Consort, a singing ensemble led by Catherine’s husband, Julian, is setting off for a two-week stay in the Belgium countryside to practice a challenging modern piece for a festival performance. The ensemble, of which Catherine is the soprano, consists of differing personality types who are destined to clash when in prolonged close proximity. These clashes are amusing to read as is the satire on modern music, performance art and artists. Gothic elements appear too as the accommodation is close to a forest, replete with threats and mysterious human cries.
Interwoven throughout the adventure and the musical noise (noise being the right word – the ensemble have been landed with something awful) is a show not tell story of a marriage gone wrong. The moments Catherine and Julian share are anything but intimate, and his constant putdowns of her are painful to witness. Yet Catherine finds unexpected support in the other female member of the ensemble, a young, no-nonsense German single mother. Her recovery is complete after she spends a night alone in the forrest. What happens is not explained and that I found an anomaly in an otherwise precise piece.
(Note to self: Could it be as simple as Catherine has faced down her personal demons so there is no need to explain?)
The 199 Steps / The Courage Consort