This is quite a remarkable debut. The story's two parallel strands are cleverly managed, and the reader's interest is continually maintained. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, but that never becomes a problem, and you want to keep going while reading to see how the story develops. This author has an obvious talent, and I await her next book with interest.
First-time novelist Rosemary Allen captures the innocence of the 1950s, tracking the experiences of an impre
ssionable teenage girl on an exchange visit to Germany. There is added poignancy because the story unfolds for the reader (and for the heroine, Margaret) through her diary, discovered 35 years later amongst her mother's belongings.
The mother has died and the year is 1989. Margaret is now known as Meg. There are profoundly disturbing memories which have been hidden away all that time and which she is now having to face up to. Momentous political events provide the backdrop as revolution in Romania leads to President Ceaucescu's downfall and the Berlin Wall is breached.
Do not be deceived by the apparently cosy domesticity of this novel. Meg is dealing with years of repressed sexuality and there is an underlying unease as shifting relationships blossom or deteriorate. Meg's shy, unworldly nature is taking time to break down and she is only just beginning to realise what possibilities there are for a different future.
As much as anything else this is a novel about memory and the damaging tricks that memory can play. Do we need to relive the past to come to terms with the past? That is the big question facing Meg and she is helped in this struggle by the new person in her life, Dr Jonathan Jacobs. Through his patient assistance Meg is able to go through the catharsis required to release her from inhibitions and painful recollections.
Stylistically, the novel is ingenious, alternating regularly between `present day' in Blackheath, London, and `diary days' in the little village of Volkmarshausen in West Germany. The link between `then' and `now' gradually evolves and builds to a climax when a friend's betrayal and the event that led to Meg's repressed state are revealed.
Over sixty characters people this novel and for many of them music is an integral part of their lives, which is another strand to this well-written book. The characters spring to life because they are vividly described and because conversation plays a crucial part in the interplay of relationships.
Thought-provoking and strongly recommended - a `must read'.
‘Then I hear it. The sound of the piano. And what’s more, as if it’s drifting up through time as well as space, the piece being played is Brahms’ Rhapsody No 2 in G minor.' I stop dead. For a moment I think perhaps it’s a trick of the mind, somehow triggered by the diary and the photographs and the news from Germany. Ridiculously, I feel my heart beating wildly, my head spinning. Because that’s how it started all those years ago in Germany; hearing him play those passionate rising chords as I walked into the house that summer evening. I half turn to go back into my room to start searching through the diary. But I know that once I start reading I shall find it impossible to do anything else this evening. Anyway, I feel an illogical, urgent need to find out who is playing now.’
Whenever I hear Brahms Rhapsody No 2 being played on the piano, I’m transported back to Germany in 1954, when I was seventeen. I was on a school exchange visit and I still have the photographs I took and the diary I kept at that time. I wanted to use these two elements to write an entirely fictional story emphasising the ability of music and photographs to recall memories and emotions.
The prologue to the novel begins in the early hours of 1st January 1990, when Margaret, a single, middle-aged teacher decides to resume writing a diary after a gap of thirty-five years. The rest of the book takes place during the last eleven days of 1989, when the Soviet Union was breaking up. Ceausescu and his wife were executed in Romania, Havel became president of Czechoslovakia and the border dividing East and West Germany had come down, emphasizing the pointlessness of the ever-changing divisions and alliances between peoples. The second half of each chapter is set during the summer of 1954 when the cold war was still at its height.
While Margaret is visiting her sister and her husband at Blackheath Vicarage for a family Christmas, she finds the diary she kept during a school exchange visit to Germany. Painful memories from that time come flooding back when she hears the Brahms Rhapsody being played on the piano by Jonathan, a consultant at the local hospital. At the age of seventeen she believed she had found the love of her life when a young pianist, Peter, kissed her and quoted German Romantic poetry to her. But the traumatic events that followed changed her life forever. Now, thirty-five years later, emotional feelings she thought she had suppressed for ever are once again awoken, as she begins to fall in love with Jonathan. And, as the family gathers to celebrate Christmas and the New Year, it appears that her sister’s marriage is beginning to crumble.
Whilst being primarily a love story, in a family setting, there are additional themes in the book revolving around the betrayal of trust and especially the ability of music and photographs to evoke memories and emotions.
The epilogue completes the circle. Margaret, anxious to record her thoughts as a new decade begins, picks up her old diary, turns a page, and starts to write again.
Listening to Brahms is now available. I shall be at the open evening on 29th June from 6.30 - 8.00 at Gulliver's Bookshop in Wimborne, Dorset at the end of Independent Booksellers' Week.
I was born in 1936 and music, theatre and literature always played an important part in family life. My mother ran an amateur theatrical group and from an early age I performed in stage productions ranging from Shakespeare to pantomime.
I still have my first (very) short story, about two lost dolls, written when I must have been about six, and another one, about a lost fish, written for my three-year-old cousin when I was eight. I continued to write, largely in derivative styles, throughout my childhood and teens, but then became too occupied bringing up my three children, to concentrate on writing. But throughout my life I’ve always read contemporary fiction, something I count as an essential tool for any writer.
After my children had left home, I decided to do an English and Media degree as a full time mature student. I qualified in 1987 and had a few short items broadcast on Radio 4, but in order to earn a living, I worked in an accounts department until the company closed in 1994. I used my redundancy money to qualify as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language. By then my husband had died and from 1994 until I retired in 2001, I taught English (language and literature and as a foreign language) and Communications, at the local College of Further Education.
My short story, ‘The Onion Man’, was broadcast in 1987 on Radio 4’s ‘Morning Story’, read by Helen Lederer. I have since written around a dozen short stories, several humorous in theme, and some more serious. I have also contributed reviews and articles on various subjects, including books, music, theatre and cinema, for several local magazines. At the moment I am researching material for my next novel, as yet unnamed, which will be set in the Dorset town of Wareham, at the end of the eighteenth century. The characters are based on the names written inside the front cover of a 1766 edition of Bailey’s dictionary, which I bought a few years ago. They include ‘Samuel Baskett of Wareham Dorset, Surgeon, Apothecary and Man-midwife’ and his family.
I have three children and five grandchildren, all now grown up. I live, with two black and white cats, in Dorset, so am surrounded by wonderful countryside and a spectacular coastline. I’m very fortunate that the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra plays every week just down the road. Music plays a large part in my life and features in much of my writing. I sing with the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, am involved in the administration of a chamber music society, and every year organise a workshop for young chamber musicians. I’m a volunteer for Making Music, the National Federation of Music Societies, and for several years edited the South West regional newsletter.