Music features prominently in Ian McEwan’s new book The Children Act. The book’s protagonist Fiona Mayes, a family court judge, is also an accomplished pianist, and both she and her husband Jack are lovers of jazz. Almost every important moment in the book, aside from the first scene and Fiona’s time in the courtroom, occurs while music is being played or listened to.
I love how McEwan weaves the musical themes seamlessly throughout the story, informing character, time and place. I listened to the Audible book (a fabulous performance by Linsday Duncan), and found myself wishing that someone had thought to add a score to the recording.
For those of you reading the Children Act and also wondering what it might sound like, here are some recordings and a little context from the novel.
Bach’s Second Partita in C Minor for Keyboard
I loved this passage, as Fiona walks to work, trying to distract her thoughts from her failing marriage by recalling the Bach Partita, a distraction that of course, fails.
The inevitable thought recurred as she moved on to the demanding fugue she had mastered, for love of her husband, and played at full tilt, without fumbling, without failing to separate the voices. Yes, her childlessness was a fugue it itself. A flight. This was the habitual theme she was trying now to resist. A flight from her proper destiny. A failure to become a woman, as her mother understood the term.
How she arrived at her state was a slow patterned counterpoint, played out with Jack over two decades, dissonances appearing then retreating, always reintroduced by her in moments of alarm, even horror, as the fertile years slipped by, until they were gone, and she was almost too busy to notice.
Down by the Sally Gardens
Fiona visits a young man with leukemia in the hospital as she tries to decide if the court will force him, a Jehovah Witness, to take blood products that will save his life. In a very non-judicial moment, as he plays Down by the Sully Gardens on his violin, she sings along. That moment and that song decide the case for her, sealing his fate and binding them together in a way she had never anticipated.
Keith Jarret – Facing You – (First track) In Front
Jarrett ‘s Facing You was “one of three or four albums that formed the soundtrack” of Fiona and Jack’s early relationship. Jack now uses the album to begin to bring them back together.
..the technical facility, the effortless outpouring of lyrical invention as copious as Mozart’s, and here it was again after so many years, still holding her to the spot, reminding her of who she and Jack once playfully were.
Hector Berlioz: Les Nuitsd’ete – Villanelle / Gustav Mahler Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I Am Lost to the World)
The book culminates in a live performance by Fiona and a tenor colleague, a performance that coincides with her learning of the fate of the young boy. The combination of such beauty and such sadness in the two pieces they perform mirror the young man perfectly.
I have become lost to the world, where I used to waste so much time;
It has been so long since it heard from me, that it may well think that I have died!
I don’t care if it thinks me dead, for I really have died to the world.
I have died to all the world’s turmoil, and I rest in a silent realm.
I live in solitude in my heaven, In my love, in my song.