More intelligent, atmospheric historical fiction from Australian novelist Balint, though her imagined biography of the Irish actress who inspired Hector Berlioz lacks the visceral punch of The Salt Letters (2001).
We know from an opening letter addressed to her son that Harriet Smithson eventually married Berlioz, but we don’t actually meet him until quite late in Balint’s oddly structured narrative. Harriet’s story begins with her birth in Ireland in 1800. Her parents, both traveling actors, leave her in the care of saintly Father Barrett; she grows up in comfort with the advantages of education denied a younger brother and sister born and kept on the road. When she is 14, her parents reclaim her for the theater, launching Harriet on a modest, monotonous career playing “countless maidens” at London's Drury Lane. Only in 1827, when she accepts an offer from Covent Garden manager Charles Kemble to appear with him in Paris, does she make a sensation as Ophelia, Juliet, and other Shakespearean heroines. The French adore her and Berlioz writes Symphonie Fantastique in her honor, though we know from her letters to their son that the marriage does not turn out well. There’s no evident artistic reason why the author chooses to alternate among these letters, third-person chapters, Harriet’s own account of her life, and purported first-person monologues by Desdemona, Anne Boleyn and Harriet’s other famous roles; nor is the novel’s intent made clearer by a disjointed chronology that frequently flashes back to her girlhood in Ireland or gives us her 1832 meeting with Berlioz before her 1827 triumph as Ophelia. Harriet is an appealing character, stoically bearing burdensome family responsibilities and the unwanted attentions of men who think all actresses are loose women, and her descriptions of her craft offer a nice summary of 19th-century acting technique. But the parts just don’t cohere into a satisfactory whole; the story’s further muffled by languid pacing and a limited emotional range running from sadness to regret.
An honorable failure from a gifted author who will undoubtedly do better.