The power of mu­sic to make and mend

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Eva Sal­lis

ROMA Tearne’s novel Bone China is 400 pages of a fam­ily saga that sprawls across gen­er­a­tions and con­ti­nents. It has all the in­gre­di­ents of a page- turner. The de Sil­vas are an abra­sive Tamil fam­ily, faded landown­ers of the old or­der in Cey­lon ( soon to be­come Sri Lanka). The younger gen­er­a­tion are ill at ease in their home­land, some be­com­ing po­lit­i­cally ac­tive, oth­ers yearn­ing for a life else­where. The older gen­er­a­tion, rep­re­sented by the aris­to­cratic Grace and her feck­less but in­tel­li­gent hus­band, Aloy­sius, are fixed in a place that is pre­car­i­ous, hold­ing on, whether nobly or de­spi­ca­bly, to their habits and cus­toms.

Sri Lanka’s in­ten­si­fy­ing po­lit­i­cal tur­moil places all mem­bers of the fam­ily un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure. Grace and Aloy­sius some­how sur­vive the tur­moil, in spirit and in per­son, but they are to lose all but one of their chil­dren to em­i­gra­tion. Th­ese chil­dren each have their own tra­jec­tory, driven by tal­ent or per­son­al­ity into var­i­ous forms of self- de­struc­tion or ex­pres­sion.

Lovely Ali­cia ( and al­most all the key women in this story are lovely) throws her­self into be­com­ing a bril­liant pi­anist, but crashes for decades when her hus­band Su­nil is killed in a po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tion. Thorn­ton is a he­do­nist and repro­bate, but he comes good and comes to life af­ter mar­ry­ing the prac­ti­cal and com­pas­sion­ate Savitha, and with fa­ther­hood.

Christo­pher is bro­ken young by what he sees in the ri­ots, in which he loses his fi­ancee and his mother loses her lover. Ja­cob, the old­est, is bit­ter at be­ing pulled from school and never seems to get over it. Frieda, who stays with her par­ents in Sri Lanka, is not lovely and never mar­ries. An­naMeeka’s story an­chors the last part of the book and shows the hard- won suc­cess the chil­dren of mi­grants can achieve in adapt­ing to a new world.

De­spite all its po­ten­tial strengths, I couldn’t get ab­sorbed in Bone China. It is over­long, yet feels in­com­plete. The char­ac­ters are not strongly sus­tained. Grace’s name and love­li­ness, her keep­ing up ap­pear­ances and her par­al­lel im­prob­a­ble af­fair with a lower- caste man, are not enough for us to be per­suaded that she is real, or the com­pelling, ad­mirable and pow­er­ful ma­tri­arch with or against whom her chil­dren con­tend. We are told much, but it is still­born on the page.

The chil­dren are sketchy be­ings buried in waf­fle in the early parts of the book. They come to life, at least for me, in the murky, com­plex ten­sions of their ex­pe­ri­ences as mi­grants in Bri­tain, and their tor­mented re­la­tion­ship with the for­mer colo­nial power, but this un­even­ness in­creases the feel­ing that the book is un­fin­ished, as the rest of the novel is not so sub­tle. The cli­mac­tic ri­ots and po­lit­i­cal un­rest that smash ev­ery­thing for this fam­ily fall a lit­tle flat, as we don’t know well enough ei­ther the cen­tral char­ac­ters or the three loved ones who die.

At the heart of this book is the idea that art can ex­press and trans­form trauma. Anna- Meeka, who af­ter many dif­fi­cul­ties be­comes a com­poser, cre­ates a piece of mu­sic in which her fam­ily’s past, present and fu­ture are ex­pressed, that tells of ‘‘ new long­ings, join­ing the oth­ers that the cen­turies had ab­sorbed’’. The book ends with the pre­miere of this heal­ing mu­sic.

Art ap­pears as a key mo­tif in Tearne’s ear­lier book Mos­quito , a more scrappy but also more in­ter­est­ing novel. Also set in Sri Lanka, Mos­quito has artists and writ­ers, not mu­si­cians, at its heart, but the idea, and the end­ing, are the same. Bril­liant ( and lovely) Nu­lani Men­des, af­ter much suf­fer­ing, cre­ates art that ex­presses the hor­ror and beauty of Sri Lanka and ar­tic­u­lates her own story. This idea is more ef­fec­tively wrought in Mos­quito than in Bone China, per­haps be­cause Tearne is an artist.

Read­ers who liked Vikram Seth’s An Equal Mu­sic may well en­joy Tearne’s Bone China. To be fair, I am per­haps not the in­tended reader for ei­ther of th­ese books. Eva Sal­lis, a nov­el­ist, is writer- in- res­i­dence at the Univer­sity of Ade­laide. Roma Tearne is a guest at Ade­laide Writ­ers Week.

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