School of Velocity by Eric Beck Rubin

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School of Velocity by Eric Beck Rubin

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: This author promises much with his debut novel, even if he does throw in a free excuse for you not liking it. Get past that potentially major hindrance and this is most memorable.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: November 2016
Publisher: One
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780993506277

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Jan's head is dropping him in it. He's a trained concert pianist, but is having difficulty performing, with a horrendous problem, in that he can hear any discordant music, or just in fact horrid noise, when in the wings waiting to perform, and never the score he is due to follow. The devil's tinnitus, you might call it. With another failure behind him, but dignity somewhat intact, Jan decides he has to work back through his life to tell us the cause – and we're likewise dropped into an extended flashback, to his formative years at art school, with a pretentious drama student, Dirk. The book is a fast-moving exploration of what Jan finds of note (pun intended) through his life, and all that might have caused his mental problem. But is cognisance of what might lie behind it going to help?

I have to go on record as saying I did not like a lot of the first block of this book. And I know who to blame for that – Dirk. My calling him pretentious is but one handicap he had – he's overly boisterous, exuberant, cocky – utterly monkey as we learn at one point, in a great phrase. But what he does can be seen to damage this book a lot, and perhaps irreparably for some. I don't mean so much his character, which I didn't like, nor what the friendship leads to, which is obvious, but in the way we lose Jan in the proceedings. At times he tries to thrust the realism of his Dirk-less days, his rehearsals and studies, on to the pages, but in forsaking so much of what makes Jan interesting we only gain Dirk. There are swathes of this writing, as good as it might be, that makes you cry out for the chance to read about the life of a pianist – the book really does seem mis-sold for many stretches.

But hopefully you latched on to my calling these pages well written, for they really are. Our debutant author might be a professor of architecture in Canada, but he certainly seems to have a head for classical music, and a fine understanding of how people might approach it when learning to perform it. He also drops in phrases from a pilot's vocabulary, just to show his erudition. And all the while he sets everything in The Netherlands, therefore adding one much more unexpected layer onto things, giving a slightly exotic gloss on the banal details of the lads growing up with their immoral fumblings and Velvet Underground long players. Oftentimes you think this is a brilliantly-translated lost European masterpiece.

The Devil's Advocate would say that without the character study of a working pianist, and without the Dutch setting, the book provides little in the long run that is outstandingly new. But to my mind this reads as a brilliant calling-card; many people would suffer in the attempt to convey such elements so well at any stage in their career, let alone as a first-time published author. There's a strong narrative drive here, that makes everything very readable, even if the style and mood can get the writing closer to the 'literary fiction' than the 'general' category at times; there is an authorial conviction about the music I maintain will be beyond the reach of many other writers, and there is an ease with bringing us a complete character that is most commendable. Yes, I hated Dirk (and I grew to hate the blurb, which should be avoided for telling just far too much), but that may well be down to me latching on to Jan so quickly in the initial eight pages – eight pages that, like the rest in this book, are eminently readable.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The Strays by Emily Bitto has further childhood infatuation.

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