The Music Room by William Fiennes

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The Music Room by William Fiennes

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: This provides a pastoral look at how one fractured, epileptic child can alter an idyllic upbringing, but the lessons in just what life with a violent, fitting and powerful older brother might be like are just too few and far between.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? No
Pages: 224 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330444408

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William Fiennes grows up in a castle (Broughton Castle, in fact - but we're not told directly which one). It sounds a dream upbringing - a large library, chances of ice-skating round the moat, film crews dropping in to record TV and heritage cinema, a host of culture and nature at hand. But like so many castles of fiction there is a bogeyman hampering out and out joy. In this case it is William's oldest brother, Richard.

Through a wispy, dreamy structure of pastoral anecdote we see many details of the life the children of the family led, from witnessing the local herons through the year, tree-climbing, angling, clambering around on the expansive roof and so on. We also see a lot of what made Richard Richard - his adoration of Leeds FC, his affected taking up of smoking with a pipe, and the violence and harsh language he could at times adopt, due to slight brain damage brought on by ongoing epilepsy.

Fiennes also drops in now and again to the history of epilepsy science, from early electrical experiments in relation to the body, to the discoveries of parts of the brain and what their neuronal charges do or don't do to the body. But beyond those excerpts, where the change in style is too great to fit comfortably with the rest of the book, there is a lot more that could have been said about living with an epileptic. I found it a disarming experience - and that was the one time I've seen someone fit (I know, I haven't lived).

This is very much a personal memoir first, a life shared with Richard second, and a 'life under the illness' reportage a distant third. And while that bias leaves us with a book appealing to all senses (we see a warm lifestyle, and learn how the different areas of the castle smell differently), there could have been a lot more detail of how life was shared with Richard, that made no encroachments on his or the rest of the family's privacy.

By the time William himself is feeling encroached on, and his teenage self is railing against his moated existence at home, we are also stuck within his book, in the sense of not being freed enough by his flights of fancy into the personal autobiography. In the end I sought more education from this book, and less poesy. While not wishing this to turn into a misery memoir, and admitting the circumstances may well have demanded a balanced overlook of Richard, I felt let down by the brief looks at the blackness of his malady, however colourful the surrounding writing may have been.

I must still thank the publishers for the Bookbag's review copy.

For another look at a life touched b y epilepsy have a look at Touching From A Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division by Deborah Curtis.

PS This copy ended in the hands of the reviewer's mother, who simply adored Fiennes's first book, The Snow Geese. She declared this beautifully written and very evocative. It's a book whose style is evidently very divisive.

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