Sue Gee

Published by Salt Publishing 15 April 2016

320pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Rachel Hore

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During her lengthy writing career, Sue Gee has garnered a breadth of acclaim that encompasses the Romantic Novel of the Year award for Hours of the Night and an Orange Prize longlisting for The Mysteries of Glass.  In Trio, her tenth novel, she once again explores what she does best: the relationship between community and the lonely interior world of the human spirit.

The setting is Northumberland in the years immediately before World War II.   Steven Coulter, a young history teacher at a boys’ secondary school in the hill town of Kirkhoughton, has recently lost Margaret, his bride of a year, to the scourge of tuberculosis.  The routines of work help carry him through the days, but outside school he shuts himself away in their now forlorn moorland love nest, burying himself in memories.  Gee very tenderly dramatizes the different stations of his grief, the way part of his mind refuses to accept that she’s gone, how he writes to his wife as though he’s speaking to her, and how painful reminders of her snag unexpectedly.  The author is good, too, on the harmony of man and nature.  Snow falls, spring creeps over the moor; the changing seasons measure the passing of time, and slowly Steven grows accommodated to his loss.

The life of the local boys’ school is warmly and richly evoked. Steven is watched over by his head of department, Frank Embleton, a kind and charismatic Oxford man of his own age, though from a more privileged background.  Frank introduces Steven to his beguiling sister Diana and their sensitive childhood pal Margot, who is a promising pianist.  Margot, Diana on cello, and a third friend, George, a talented violinist, are making their names together as the Hepplewick  Trio. Steven, hitherto ignorant of music, is soon drawn into a new and captivating world.

To write about music in fiction is a singular challenge.  Why, in the first place, try to put into words what the music itself can surely express with more eloquence, directness and power?  Perhaps where the novelist delivers is through describing the effect that music has on players and audience alike.   Thus, Margot plays ‘so intently, going right into the music, as if it were a living thing.’  And as he listens Steven ‘was more conscious of feeling better, lifted and – yes – excited.’  This engagement with music as something created, alive, the sense of it being a language of intellect and emotion, is a particular high point of Trio.  Gee also dramatizes music’s healing powers in Steven’s case, but in a way that it is never mawkish or trite.

There’s an excellent sense, too, of how the characters’ stories in this small, isolated community unfold against a wider context.  Sue Gee is good here at using little touches such as the Fusilliers glimpsed training up on the moors and idealistic left-wing Frank receiving mysterious parcels of books from London.  Ghosts of the Great War lurk everywhere, but especially in the backgrounds of the governess Miss Renner, whose fiancé was lost at the Somme, and the shellshocked survivor of the same battle, David Dunn, a fellow teacher at the school.

Pre-war Northumberland is a world now lost, and despite the miniaturist approach and the immediacy of the close third person narrative, sometimes when filling in time gaps the author employs impressionistic flashbacks or description, which gives the reader an unsettling sense of viewing the story through the wrong end of a telescope.  All this prepares though, for a surprising turn towards the end of the novel, when a fresh voice takes up the tale, linking the past in a satisfying and instructive way with the present.  Trio is an enjoyable and heart-twisting story that will linger long in the mind.

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