21 March 2010

The Song is You (Arthur Phillips)

Two posts in one evening... I must be feeling better. As you will all know, I am battling another case of bronchitis. You will all know because I whinge about it on a relatively regular basis. I haven't been feeling up to staying up past eight o'clock and reviewing. This is proving problematic considering I am leaving London in six weeks time. Attempting to cram in quality time with friends I may not see for years and years is hard when you are slumped over the table, weakly waving away offers of an ambulance (friend J is particularly twitchy when it comes to medical matters) and coughing so much you can hear your lungs bouncing off your ribcage (true story!). However, I am now feeling much better, although I am reluctant to give up the marvellous and miraculous cough medicine I have been taking at night. It puts me in an extremely deep sleep about twenty minutes after dosage and I have been waking up this past week feeling well-rested, which I don't think I've felt since Christmas. But it's the dreams that have me coming back for more. Never have I had such vivid, interesting dreams, with the perfect balance of the surreal and the familiar. Not too much menace- enough to keep things interesting, but ultimately not too unsettling. The sort of dreams where you're being chased by a shark but then you find chocolate cake.

I have taken this marvellous medicine (Alcott's not George's) and thus do not exactly have an elegant sufficiency of time to finish this review before I drop off. Probably then, we can all agree that the paragraph I just wrote above was an ill-advised way to spend my limited time.

The Song is You is the sort of novel you want to love but you suspect, before you have even opened the covers, that it is going to be a grave disappointment. A man who uses music to define all the most important moments in his life. A romance with an Irish singer. Reviewers gasping to make their accolades more adoring than everyone else's.

To my happy, happy surprise, the novel was beautiful. A deeply romantic love story told with impeccable modern prose. The musical references throughout felt organic rather than affected or, (as I suspected they might be), a pathetic attempt by the author to prove how hardcore and bohemian he is. Phillips manages to make Julian's attachment to his iPod merely a part of the character rather than a grating plot hook. This is harder than it looks. In many ways it is the easy way out to write historical fiction, where there are thousands of sources to draw from when looking for guidance on the forms of expression that work most eloquently. Internet technology, modern slang and pop culture are infinitely harder to include in effortless prose.

The love story itself has two main elements that prevent it from falling into twee territory. The first is the slight seediness and underground feel to the romance. Julian is much older than Cait, the young singer he has fallen for. He stalks her, lets himself into her apartment, cooks her dinner without having been introduced and leaves an indentation of his head in her pillow so she won't feel so alone. I had chills for a lot of these scenes, but I was always most panicked when I thought the police were going to catch him. "They're going to arrest him and they won't realise he's doing everything out of love!" I thought, distressed. (Although, it must be noted, this is probably the excuse of every stalker out there.)

The other aspect of the romance which made it all the more engaging was the refusal of Phillips to indulge the expectations I have as a Generation Y Instant Gratification Brat. Julian and Cait embody the typical Girl Meets Boy Plus Obstacles scenario, except that the girl doesn't actually physically meet the boy until the end of the novel. This restraint on the part of the characters (because it is a decision they both contribute to) is INFURIATING for the reader but also strangely exciting and compelling. After all, wanting something and being denied it only makes you want it more.

If there are some loose ends not tied up as neatly as I would have liked, if there are some characters that I felt needed further development, that all seems rather irrelevant when you can read a book that actually delivers what it promised to do- tell a love story that is determined to be of this time, a love story that nevertheless reaffirms that romances like these are as old as the songs that are sung about them.

Rating: 8/10.
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