In a minor key, Victoria Carchidi

Classical Music
Joy Cowley
Penguin, $24.95,
ISBN 0 14 028838 4

There ought to be more novels about 50-plus-year-old women. Classical Music, Joy Cowley’s first novel for adults for decades, centres on two sisters, Delia, 58, and Beatrice, 55. The novel opens with Bea calling to inform Delia that their father has died – Delia already knows, as she felt her father’s presence an hour earlier. For the funeral, Delia – who lives in New York City – must return home to New Zealand. I read the novel while visiting the United States myself, so Delia’s ruminations on the differences between the US and New Zealand sparked my own comparisons.

Delia revels in the grimy streets outside her interior-decorating office block: “I know the symphony of this street,” she says; “the fortissimo of the ambulance, the mezzo-forte of the garbage truck, the leggiero of pigeon wings … the timpani of traffic, the heavier percussion of
the subway.” I instead stared out too many American motel windows that cannot be opened to let in any air, and bemoaned the lack of kitchen – or even tea-making! – facilities. Despite the glorious vista of trees transforming their greenery into golden and scarlet foliage, I cringed at the roads’ cacophony and the blue-jay caws of too-loud voices.

Certainly the prevalence of museums, libraries, and other amenities in American cities out-balances the dehumanising acres of concrete freeways, thruways, highways and dieways enveloping them. But Delia’s fear of even a brief visit home is extreme. She thinks of ways to back out: “Sorry, Bea, crisis at work, flights all booked, plane got hijacked. Sorry, Bea, but even the thought of going back to New Zealand bores me witless.” Despite some softening of her attitude once back in New Zealand (for a trip that she defensively tells her sister is “almost a week if I include travel time”), Delia still yearns for the city:

I miss the melted tar in summer, the ice in winter, the black garbage bags, the black umbrellas, the yellow taxi-cabs, the sirens, the people noise, the whole steam and stink of it.

Yesterday in Napier I saw in a bookshop the latest New Yorker. It was two months old. Two goddam [sic] months! I felt as though I was falling off the end of the earth.

To rely on the New Yorker, even hot off the press, to link oneself to the earth is evidence of a dislocation in Delia that goes beyond distance. Delia’s trepidation, her embrace of an urban environment that assaults the senses, connect to the mystery of what happened one year when the sisters were girls.

The novel consists of triads of chapters: first, one named for Delia, who narrates it; second, one named for and told by Beatrice; third, one entitled “1953”, told by an omniscient narrator. This triad repeats until we end, as we began, with Delia. I won’t reveal the events of 1953, except to say that Cowley suggests that they and their sequelae have shaped aspects of the two women’s lives.

Delia’s voice dominates the novel. The younger Beatrice’s speech is marked by absences. Before showing Delia her restaurant (“Kiwiana”!), Beatrice thinks, “Yes, I really am nervous about showing her Kiwiana. I’m afraid she’ll. Well, really, it’s the way she is about everything New Zealand. She was unhappy here. Funny how the little things.” Less imperative than Delia, Beatrice invites her audience to complete each thought. But Bea – overweight, dowdy, second-best – seems more vital than brittle, fearful Delia.

Through music, Delia finds her way back to that vitality: the natural world of Aotearoa-New Zealand, with which Beatrice is linked by many aspects, from her motherhood to her skill with and appreciation of the fruits of New Zealand’s produce. The novel’s title refers in part to the girls’ mother, a talented pianist too shy to play in public except on very rare occasions. Although Delia hasn’t her mother’s talent, her appreciation of music sings throughout her observations of the world. In New Zealand, she finds music that is sublime: “Houses spread out like tiny building blocks on a land that resonates with the power of the Saint-Saens organ symphony … Great chords of mountains, oceans, earthquakes and storms, and, perched on it, the grace notes of a little people.” At their father’s funeral, Delia notes of an unprofessional singer that she “is not Kiri te Kanawa”, but then hears more: “this thin thread … does something else, transforming the notes to the simple call of a bellbird, a sound that sets the heart quivering with thin, pure grief.”

Emotive power surges from Aotearoa-New Zealand. Only here have I come face-to-face with a tree and felt chilled to my soul by its ancient, inhuman, and palpable spirit that distilled me down to a transient fleck. Fiordland’s brooding mountains make it impossible to ignore chthonic gods. Delia considers a link to the impermanence of people on Aotearoa-New Zealand: “it might be something to do with the lack of human history, only a thousand years, and the geographic isolation. Whatever, this earth does not wear the same veneer of human spirit that we touch in the countries of the Northern Hemisphere, and this salt-laden air is quite empty of ghosts.” But the effect cannot be a mere consequence of distance from humanity. Even on the Desert Road, Ruapehu, enrobed by grey and white scarves against an intensely radiant sky, commands awe.

In contrast, Americans worship the road. A television ad for Sports Utility Vehicles (that is, large, off-road vehicles that get far less than 20 miles to the gallon!) shows two lovely young women, each in her own monster truck, spotting the last parking spot at a mall at the same moment. They drive over barriers and planting beds to beat each other out, and the victor pumps her fist in triumph. Achievement, USA-style.

In her artificial New York womb, Delia has lost the natural world: “I always forget how bright the light is here, how the sun throws itself against every surface so that the eyes are constantly being fire-bombed.” At the graveside service, the weather attacks her: “we hear the wind approaching like an express train … then dust and twigs blow full in my face.” But in reuniting with her sister, and sharing their common history, Delia ceases to deny the living, organic world, and it embraces her. When Bea claims a burial spot, Delia joins her: “I run as fast as my tight dress will allow and lie down beside her. ‘I’ll have this place,’ I shout above the noise of rushing air. The earth is surprisingly warm at my back, while in front of me, the clouds race away to nowhere on a distant music spun out on the piano.”

During an impromptu swim in Wellington Harbour, Delia realises she has not swum with her sister since 1953. In this reunion, with her sister and with the sea, she experiences an epiphany: “The water bears me easily in a gentle rocking motion, up and down, up and down, and then something happens. A vast and silent music. For an instant I have the knowledge of being held, one small note in a perfect symphony.”

Discussions of love, philosophy, work, and more intersperse these moving moments. So do funny aspects, often in Bea’s unassuming voice. In one wonderful scene, the sisters relive their childhood practice of rendering the “yes, I did,” “no, you didn’t” debate down to its primal opposition of “yesssssss” and “no, no, nnnnnnnnnn” and fall about laughing, much to the affronted surprise of Bea’s son and daughter-in-law.

Delia and Beatrice’s wealth of experience includes but enriches that known by those less mature – nowadays limited in the media to young, self-centred sex. Not berg-tossed lovers on a disaster-bound ship, Delia and Beatrice nonetheless live their lives intensely. We need more novels about 50-plus-year-old women, if they are of this sort, revealing – and revelling in – such women’s versatility.

Cowley’s focus on love beyond the sexual, romantic stereotype strengthens the novel. So, too, do its clear, uncluttered language and the rareness of errors such as “its totemic,” “giving Bea and I a flower”, and typos. Betty Gilderdale attributes to Cowley the argument that “authors should write for children as they write for other adults, but within children’s experiences.” Accordingly, Cowley’s skilful, understated work here comes as no surprise despite her long absence from adult fiction.

This novel’s fine and lovely writing reveals the deep passions that continue throughout life for thoughtful people. Delia tells Bea, “the truth is probably very simple. We are all a part of the ultimate reality. When we know that, we live in heaven. When we don’t know it, we can suffer hell.” This novel’s quiet, simple voice tells of a path to that reality, singing beneath the clamouring car horns and revving engines that we allow to deafen us to the grander symphony.

Victoria Carchidi is a lecturer in Massey University’s School of English and Media Studies, and has lived in New Zealand for seven years.

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