Mu­si­cal quest from ouija board to ros­trum

Ghost Vari­a­tions

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Jessica Duchen

Un­bound, £9.99

Re­viewed by Madeleine Kings­ley

SCHUMANN’S LOST con­certo and a vir­tu­oso femme fa­tale keep you gripped and guess­ing in Ghost Vari­a­tions. Set in 1930s Lon­don, this mu­si­cal mys­tery by Jessica Duchen strikes a hot-blooded tune with grace notes from be­yond the grave. The story cen­tres on Jelly d’Aranyi, Hun­gar­ian, part-Jewish vi­o­lin­ist and siren muse of Bar­tok, Ravel and El­gar.

Pressed to par­tic­i­pate in a Ouija board sit­ting, Jelly re­ceives a mes­sage pur­port­edly from Robert Schumann’s spirit, en­treat­ing her to find his un­known vi­o­lin con­certo in D mi­nor.

Jelly is shaken by and scep­ti­cal of her own eerie ex­pe­ri­ence. But pres­sure mounts from her sis­ter, the spirit-sen­si­tive Adila and a ti­tled fam­ily friend.

Jelly (pro­nounced Yeli) is no longer daz­zling au­di­ences as she once did, bow­ing the Tzi­gane rhap­sody ded­i­cated to her by Ravel. Two of her lovers are dead, a third, and a pos­si­ble fourth only wait­ing in the wings. She is trou­bled by Europe’s ten­sion. So the lure of play­ing de­tec­tive and of re­viv­ing her glory days by per­form­ing the piece as a world first, sets Jelly off like a con­duc­tor’s nod.

There en­sues an im­pas­sioned quest that will en­gage the ears of Cham­ber­lain, Hitler and a scorn­fully dis­be­liev­ing Bri­tish press.

Ghost Vari­a­tions reads like a bo­hemian thriller freshly imag­ined by Duchen, her­self a pian­ist and mu­si­cal scholar. It is, how­ever a whole lot stranger than fic­tion: Duchen’s novel is in­spired by the real-life events sur­round­ing the ex­otic Jelly d’Aranyi, to whom Vaughan Wil­liams and Holst also ded­i­cated works. Jelly did in­deed spark the search for Schumann’s con­certo, which has its own heady his­tory. The D Mi­nor piece was not ex­actly lost, but lay un­pub­lished and un­played for 80 years in the Prus­sian State li­brary: Clara Schumann, the com­poser’s widow sup­pressed it on the grounds that it betrayed the com­poser’s in­cip­i­ent in­sta­bil­ity — he later died, delu­sional in an asy­lum. Jelly raises Schumann’s pro­file at the key mo­ment when Goebbels, hav­ing banned the con­certo by the bap­tised Jew Felix Men­delssohn, can res­ur­rect echt Ger­man mu­sic as pro­pa­ganda. Duchen has all this re­mark­ably ob­scure ma­te­rial at her fin­ger­tips, flesh­ing it out with a strong sense of so­cial his­tory and the

Robert Schumann fash­ion­able re­fine­ments of this pre­war age. Pian­ist Myra Hess makes a cameo ap­pear­ance in a cloud of cig­a­rette smoke, evok­ing an arty fem­i­nism that ranks mu­sic above mar­riage. Nor­man Hart­nell gowns, tango shoes, na­tur­ist beaches and the mé­nage a trois help to con­jure this pe­riod of “psy­chi­cal” en­thu­si­asm for dark­ened rooms and the ques­tion: “Is any­body there?”

The response from Jelly’s own world, never mind the next, was that she was far from alone — just one of a tem­per­a­men­tal trio claim­ing first rights to the Schumann. While she in­sisted the priv­i­lege was ex­clu­sively hers, Ger­many pushed for­ward their own Ge­org Ku­lenkampff to take first bow. The young Menuhin jock­eyed to win the con­certo for his Carnegie Hall come­back after a year off. And mu­sic pub­lisher, Schotts, stirred the sit­u­a­tion with mul­ti­ple agen­das. Duchen’s or­ches­tra­tion of such in­trigue mer­its great ap­plause.

Madeleine Kings­ley is a free­lance re­viewer

(HarperCollins HQ, £7.99) is a pow­er­ful novel about an un­likely fe­male friend­ship. Her two pro­tag­o­nists, Astrid and Noa, are vividly drawn and, though po­lar op­po­sites in back­ground and per­son­al­ity, have an en­dur­ing con­nec­tion upon which Jenoff has cre­ated a bold and com­pelling nar­ra­tive.

Astrid, a trapeze artist from a suc­cess­ful Jewish cir­cus fam­ily, is cast out by her fam­ily when she falls in love with and mar­ries a Ger­man of­fi­cer. Nev­er­the­less, she re­mains happy for a while, but when the Nazis tighten their stran­gle­hold on Ger­many, her hus­band divorces her and she is forced to flee for her life.

On re­turn­ing to her fam­ily home, she finds them gone. In des­per­a­tion, she joins Neuhoff’s Cir­cus, a neigh­bour­ing, ri­val troupe of waifs and strays. She, by con­trast, is a feisty, con­fi­dent woman, and makes a suc­cess of her new role.

Noa is a young and naïve Dutch gen­tile whose own brief li­ai­son with a Ger­man soldier leaves her preg­nant. Her fam­ily’s hor­ror forces her to give up her baby for adop­tion and try to sur­vive alone. While work­ing as a cleaner in a small-town rail­way sta­tion, she dis­cov­ers a rail­car full of

Jewish ba­bies and, full of long­ing for her own lost child, she takes one and goes on the run. After a treach­er­ous, freez­ing cold jour­ney, she, too, ar­rives at Neuhoff’s Cir­cus, where she and the child are taken in.

De­spite Astrid’s doubts and re­sis­tance, Neuhoff of­fers Noa a job as a trapeze artist and Astrid is or­dered to pro­vide the train­ing. Noa and Astrid must learn to trust one an­other, in more ways than one, and what fol­lows tests loy­alty to its lim­its.

The Or­phan’s Tale is based on real events and is metic­u­lously re­searched. Char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions are both skil­fully re­alised.

It was in the Ar­chives of Yad Vashem that Jenoff dis­cov­ered two re­mark­able sto­ries that in­spired her to write the book.

She writes, in an au­thor’s note, that, “the first was a heart­break­ing ac­count of the ‘un­known chil­dren’ — a box­car full of ba­bies ripped from their fam­i­lies and headed for a con­cen­tra­tion camp.

“The sec­ond story was about a Ger­man cir­cus that had shel­tered Jews.”

The Or­phan’s Tale is densely plot­ted but this does not pre­vent it from be­ing emo­tion­ally sin­cere, and ex­cep­tion­ally read­able.

SIPORA LEVY Pam Jenoff

PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES

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