The power of music to make and mend
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.