William Fiennes' last book The Snow Geese, a journey into the
depths of the Canadian Arctic won mega-accolades and prizes and ended
with the author walking up the path towards his home. Now I've had a
glimpse of life in that home I must read it, because what a little gem of a read The Music Room by William Fiennes has been.
I slotted this into the middle of the Orange-thon if only to regain a bit of a gender perspective and this one probably contributed in a strange way to my demise with The Wilderness. It's a book of such deep contrasts, another world and a book with the power of the lingering thought, the lasting memory that will suddenly be triggered by a visual image.
In fact here's one and if you decide to read this book, this image along with countless others will likely linger for you too.
William Fiennes is the master of the poetic and lyrical memory, there is a gentle melody to this book which not only recalls his incredible childhood growing up in the inherited family seat which happened to be a castle, but also growing up with his older brother (by eleven years) Richard. There is a brother who has died in a tragic but largely unspoken accident before William's birth and also some twins inbetween but this is predominantly about Richard who suffers from a severe form of epilepsy.
The castle provides a magical backdrop to an enviable childhood; water-filled, pike-laden moat, gatehouse, turrets and battlements, medieval chapel and acres of unlived-in rooms and attics stuffed full with not the normal stuff of lofts. Forget the Christmas decorations and Fisher-Price toys you can't bear to part with, William wanders around trying on old armour and rattling sabres.
But this is a home that must earn its keep (sorry) and so the family live a private life in a very public space as rooms are opened to the public and visiting film crews, while the whole family turn their hand to talking and guiding people around their home.
But behind all this lies Richard and his increasingly debilitating fits, with the brain damage and medication leading to violent and erratic behaviour and general unpredictability, but he is surrounded by love and a family who accept and understand him with the patience of the saints.
Visitors are tactfully prepared to
'slacken off the strings of their expectations and not be caught off guard by Richard's unpredictable bolshiness or ingenous warmth.'
But when he is at home there is no question of excluding Richard from any aspect of family life and it becomes clear that, whilst his condition provides challenges to all who care for him, Richard is constantly nurtured and cherished by his family and by his surroundings.
'Those hours spent watching herons were a state of grace from which he returned restored and at peace, but often these visits home were fraught with difficulty.'
Richard's life and moods revolve greatly around the successes or failures of Leeds United football club and give rise to his own form of gloomy melancholy known as 'downput'. Slowly William's childlike understanding and acceptance of Richard's 'otherness' is woven into an adult understanding of his condition,
'for Richard there was no prospect of loosened constraints, no country of self-determination on the horizon. His childlikeness was indefinite, He was moated in.'
This moated-castle home gives of its very best to the Fiennes family in return for their pledge,
'to care for it for as long as we are here'.
Somehow Richard's outbursts seem containable within a castle, the fabric of this stronghold can tolerate and absorb his violence, his fists are unlikely to go through the walls; together with the provision of a magical setting in which to grow up, it's something else castles are good at, they've seen it all before.
'One afternoon I saw Dad standing next to the house, his right arm stretched out, palm pressed flat against a buttress, his head dropped. He didn't move.
'What are you doing?' I asked.
He said he was asking the house for some if its strength.'
Alongside William's understanding a regular pulse, almost a foundation, a beat for everything else to keep in time with, runs throughout the book and that is a history of the brain. In anyone else's hands I don't think this would have worked, it might have felt like a seperate reference but I'm with Diane Athill's description (Literary Review - April) of this as something that whilst initially feeling superfluous slowly becomes an essential bass-note to that melody, echoing and resonating throughout The Music Room. Once I'd read that I couldn't express it any better so decided not to try.
You realise with thanks that medicine has come some way since the days of Pliny when the standard treatment for epilepsy was,
' seal genitals, tortoise blood and hippopotamous testicles and peony root worn round the neck as an amulet'
Books like this leave a feeling, a resonating mood, for me a pitch-perfect sense of optimism and goodness, I think The Music Room might possibly be one to put on the 'Roger Deakin' shelf and revisit every so often, there is something timeless and quite life-enhancing about it.