‘The Devil’s Music’ by Jane Rusbridge

This looks like the type of book I might pick up in a bookshop, read the blurb and then put back; indeed I think I may even have done exactly that.  I was however encouraged to read it by a comment from a friend who recommended it on the basis that it examined the impact a childhood memory might have on an adult life.

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about in my own writing recently, and it’s always good to see how others have approached it

I’m very happy that I have now read it; it’s beautifully written with an underlying uncertainty verging on a mystery that propels the narrative.

The story focuses on Andy, as a child in the  late 1950s, early 1960s, and then, in a present day 1990s.  His first person narratives in both periods are punctuated with the perspective of his mother Helen, in the second person, during his young childhood.

Andy has a baby sister, Elaine, who is described by their father as ‘not being all there’.  As an adult Andrew is haunted by the memory of the day he is left to look after the baby on the beach while his mother and other sister Susie go for ice creams and his belief that he was responsible for the death of his sister.

To keep order and control in his life Andy practices the knots his grandfather has taught him.  A thick vein of rope and knot imagery runs through the book, from nooses with which Andy ties up Susie, to doormats he makes as useful gifts as an adult.

But as the novel progresses there is a metaphorical unravelling of the stories Andrew has told himself about his family.

This felt to me like a tale of abandonment.  Helen, the mother, leaves her young children Andy and Susie behind when she disappears.

The father, although physically present, is emotionally absent from his children, a state which extends past death, when he leaves them the difficulty of tracking down Helen when he leaves part of his estate to his abandoned wife.

Andy, as a child hides away under the stairs, or in his stories of Harry Houdini, whenever he is afraid, and as an adult simply runs away from anyone who tries to care for him.  He is no help to his sister and her awful children, and even at the end of the novel he runs away just as his mother is about to return, although he does send her a knotted bracelet, as well as invites his girlfriend to go with him,  marking the first time a woman has been more than just a transient to him.

Andy is a character who evokes a lot of sympathy as a confused and troubled child, while at the same time being clearly someone with whom it would be very difficult to live.

The character of Helen, the mother, is a morally ambiguous one; is she so overwhelmed by grief and depression that she cannot cope, or is she weak and selfish?  I think the question is left open.  She couldn’t defend and protect Andy when he was a child, and then  she abandons him when she leaves the family home to live with her lover.

Her subsequent life might be an extreme attempt to assuage her guilt, by spending her life looking after two handicapped children and a badly injured lover, without realising that Andy, the child left behind, is emotionally crippled.

The exploration of what a child understands of the adult world, his perception of cause and effect, and the assumption of blame for events which happen around him, is thought provoking.  Left without any effective communication with either of his parents, the child takes these fractured experiences with him into adulthood.  It’s an idea that bears quite a lot of reflection.

The novel is interesting structurally; written in the present tense, with two first person points of view, a second person, and finally, in the prologue, the third person.  First person aids the immediacy of perception and the portrayal of the thought processes of a character not always behaving rationally, while in the second person, our view of Helen is at a distance; we’re more actively encouraged to judge her.

Do give it a go.

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