Trio by Sue Gee
|Trio by Sue Gee|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: Sue Gee's tenth novel is a sensitive portrait of life's transience and the things that give us purpose. In the late 1930s, a widowed history teacher in Northumberland finds a new lease on life when he falls for one of the members of a local trio of musicians.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: April 2016|
|Publisher: Salt Publishing|
In the winter of 1936, Steven Coulter's wife, Margaret, dies of tuberculosis, leaving their Northumberland cottage cold and empty. His work as a history teacher at Kirkhoughton Boys' School isn't enough to distract him from his grief; he spends his long evenings writing letters to Margaret. Gradually, though, as spring arrives he starts to take an interest in other things. His colleague Frank Embleton invites him to a performance by the Hepplewick Trio: Frank's sister Diana on cello; pianist Margot Heslop, whose mother died when she was young and who looks after her father, a coal mine manager, at Hepplewick Hall; and their friend George Liddell, the violinist and leader, who is a Royal College of Music graduate.
Margot starts teaching piano at the school and invites Steven over to the Hall for tea. Their friendship slowly transforms into an old-fashioned romance. All the while, though, outside events keep intruding. Hitler marches into Austria and Frank becomes consumed by politics – eventually, inspired by George Orwell, leaving for Spain to fight in the Civil War.
Gee does a wonderful job of contrasting momentous world events and idyllic village life. Northumberland isn't a common setting for fiction, so its moors, churches and country homes are particularly atmospheric here. Margot and Steven's trip to Lindisfarne is another highlight in this respect. My favourite passages of the book are descriptive ones, often comprised of short, evocative phrases:
'Spring at Hepplewick. Just the first hint of it, still early March, but the buds on the shaggy forsythia at the door were a sharp fresh green. Rain in the night, in pools on the flagstones, gleaming; the first pale sun filtered through the dense wet branches of the cedar into the shady drawing room, striking marble mantelpiece, brass fender, upraised piano lid.'
I also loved the banter between the musicians, with George's cynicism a particular highlight:
'He [George] walked down the aisle with his violin case and stood in the middle, breathing in the scent of primroses and prayer books, candle wax and cold stone. 'Gorgeous. If you could bottle Anglicanism you'd make a fortune. I don't believe a word of it, but oh, how it soothes the soul.' '
The novel has a reasonably simple plot. We delve into the past to discover each main character's backstory and some unexpected romantic entanglements, but in the 1930s storyline there aren't a lot of subplots to distract from the main action. I was reminded in places of Downton Abbey: the grand hall and its village surroundings, the build-up to war, the characters you come to love and cheer for. However, I was less than convinced of the necessity of a short final section set in the present. Steven and Margot’s children, now grandparents themselves, meet in Northumberland for Christmas and are dismayed to find it changed. I suppose Gee is attempting to depict the transience of life and the way the present fails to live up to our memory: 'in the great hush of the past probably nothing was as you'd imagined it to be … there would always be something forgotten, or misremembered, or untold.'
The novel explores the things that make life worth living even in the shadow of death: love, family, and, yes, music. 'Music is the only thing that matters,' Diana declares at one point.
Gee is almost certainly less well known than she should be after ten novels and a short story collection; fans of Rose Tremain, Tessa Hadley or Kate Atkinson (or of Downton Abbey) should not hesitate to give Trio or another of her novels a try.
Further reading suggestion: You might try The Past by Tessa Hadley or A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. We have also reviewed Sue Gee's short story collection, Last Fling. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell is a seminal work about the Spanish Civil War.
You can read more book reviews or buy Trio by Sue Gee at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Trio by Sue Gee at Amazon.com.
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