A slow, sweeping family tale spanning continents and generations.
Young’s debut novel first centers on Bernard, a sensitive carpenter in 1950s Canada. Though he’s deaf, he hears a melody one night as he slumbers. The haunting song leads him to a long sojourn in the woods, where he stumbles upon decades-old secrets. But he’s not the only one in his family enchanted by a distant, dreamlike tune. The tale jumps back and forth in time and geography, with his family’s story beginning in a French convent in 1859 and ending in present-day Australia. Bernard’s family is carefully traced, and the relationships among its members are revealed in elegant, finely crafted prose. There’s Adrienne, a French nun grappling with her vows; Isabelle, a young orphan who leaves Europe for Canada with a mysterious uncle; and Walk-Tall, a young Iroquois man with a tragic end. There are others, too, and their stories—illicit love affairs, sham marriages, mission trips to Asia—are set against a background of war, religion and, most importantly, music. Everyone is in some way connected to a guitar, either as a virtuoso or a child of one. Every guitar, it seems, is magical—when they’re in need of comfort or guidance, characters constantly swear they’ve heard their guitar play on its own—and the instruments are considered the most prized possessions, worshipped for their sound (“angels and ordinary men wept from the sheer beauty”) and sentiment. That adulation can be a bit much; some characters even sleep with their guitars like blankets, and one character’s playing unrealistically creates peace between angry Nepalese soldiers and traveling missionaries. Beyond the power of music and the nostalgia of familial possessions, the story’s progress often feels like an afterthought to Young’s focus on symbolism. Guitars might be what bind this family, but for the story, they’re more of a hindrance than an adhesive.
A beautifully written, engrossing family epic that’s a bit slow and tangled with its own literary devices.