I read Zoë Morrison’s debut novel Music and Freedom in 24 hours around a full work day. I couldn’t help it. It was compulsive, imperfect but intoxicating, building like a thriller to an inevitable peak that you cannot look away from. The book is the life story of Alice Murray, a precociously talented pianist, taken from a rural NSW orange farm to board in England at the age of seven. Her mother taught her how to play piano, but other lessons must be picked up along the way.
Alice finds boarding school bleak and endlessly cold. After the crisp brightness of Australia everything in England seems blurred and faded with damp and drizzle. After school, she is offered a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London and through a summer school in Oxford meets Edward. An economics professor, his rationality, Englishness, lectures, concern with class, place, and history, are almost an antidote to young Alice reeling in youth, talent and London college life. She is romanced, and once again the course of her life changes again.
But as small, endlessly familiar warning signs, manifest into a story of emotional destruction it is clear that this life change is irrevocable. Horrible to watch, compulsively written, filled with a kind of quiet suffering.
It is structured in three parts, the first covering the first 73 years of Alice’s life, the other two the last year and the last week. This first part takes up about half the book, and it is interesting the shift in detail and tone in the other two parts. Here Alice is older, with a small but focused life plan, a fascinating and sad daily act of tasks. And music begins to come through the walls:
“I heard the Liszt again. It was night-time, I was in bed. The music was very soft, the notes sneaked into the room and crouched on the carpet beside where I lay. I reached down, touched the carpet, imagined touching the notes too, shaping them myself. When it came to the part where the singing melody begins, that grand old theme, only the right hand continued. A skeleton of notes glued together, notes like long, curved bones. Then that stopped too and the silent night eased back in.”
Getting the whole life story of Alice, we see her parents as well as seeing how she parents. The bad as well as the good is passed on from mothers and fathers to daughters and sons. Watching generational patterns play out again and again is heartbreaking, and left me feeling like no matter what, always and forever, generations are doomed to fundamentally misunderstand each other. Reading some scenes I felt so torn – it hurt to see this happening, I wanted to stop reading, but I must find out what happens.
There are a couple of uncomfortable interludes of reflection that scratched against me because they felt forced and overwrought: thoughts on the meaning of love, the maliciousness of Romanticism; they make Alice sound more insubstantial than she is. And tonally they were off: she is an artist capable of deep talent and thought and these passages felt like they were hastily inserted without remaining true to her character.
But in total, this is is an excellent, excellent book. It is somewhat troubled and completely troubling. I stayed up all night to finish the book and afterwards I felt emotionally shipwrecked, exhausted and bereft: I couldn’t sleep while the book remained unfinished, and then I found I couldn’t sleep afterwards either. I was still churning. If this is a love story then it is one about the relationship with yourself.