Stephen Orr is an established Australian author whose previous novels include Attempts to Draw Jesus, Hill of Grace and Time’s Long Ruin which was longlisted for the 2011 Miles Franklin Award and shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. His latest novel, Dissonance, seems destined for the awards too.
Very loosely based on the ‘Frankfurt years’ of the eccentric Australian composer Percy Grainger and his mother Rose, Dissonance tells the story of a mother’s obsessive ambition for her only child and her neurotic strategies for possession of his life. From the moment of conception Erwin Hergert was destined to transcend the cultural desert into which he was born and become a pianist of renown: she played to him in the womb and he started lessons at the age of four. She stopped at nothing in pursuit of her ambitions for him, wielding a horse-whip to enforce her will, and isolating him from anyone she feared might compromise his single-minded pursuit of success. She exiled her husband to a shed on the property, she prevented access to his half-brother and – using her parents’ money for the fare – she whisked him off to Hamburg as soon as he had outgrown his teachers at the Adelaide Conservatorium.
Orr explores the dynamics of this neurotic relationship as Madge’s formidable control begins to lapse. In Hamburg Erwin makes the discovery that his mother has a romanticised view of German culture based on composers long dead. It isn’t long before he rebels against her cultural cringe because in prewar Germany, culture is no more ‘civilised’ than in Australia and what’s more disappointing is that some of his teachers know less than he does. Emotional blackmail – Madge’s favourite strategy – collides with Erwin’s attraction to Luise, a talented singer who persuades Erwin to jettison some of his practice time to accompany her at a forthcoming recital. The struggle between Luise and Madge for possession of Erwin is passionate, superbly portrayed in dramatic dialogue and arresting scenes.
World War II encroaches on this curious triangle but the Hergerts are disinterested observers. It is not their war, they say, even as they witness disquieting scenes of Nazi victimisation ranging from suppression of Jewish compositions to the murder of Jews on the street. For the Hergerts, the struggle is domestic: they are squeezed into a small flat with the inevitable small baby and must cope with wartime shortages, night bombing, and worse. As the tension between the women reaches one crescendo after another, Erwin tries to keep the peace between them even as he learns the truth about his mother’s motivations. It’s powerful writing and unputdownable.
With Hitler’s advance across Europe halted at Stalingrad in 1942, it becomes less possible to ignore the pressure to enlist. Erwin, his hands protected from injury since boyhood, takes on police duties, safe enough until he’s drafted to Poland. Madge is frantic, her years of morbid self-sacrifice at risk of coming to nothing. Orr has been careful not to overdo her characterisation and for all her flaws she still evokes empathy from time to time, especially in this part of the novel where – like every other mother in wartime – she fears for her child and not just for her own ambition. With Erwin gone, the conflict between the women degenerates into battles over caring for the child and squabbling over money: the fire and passion for possession of Erwin’s heart (and the double bed) diminishes as the reality of war is imposed on them.
As in Time’s Long Ruin Orr’s mastery of emotional landscape is impressive. For 400-odd pages the reader is plunged into a torrid hot-house of emotion, somewhat reminiscent of Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest which has its genesis in a similar musical milieu. As shown by my Sensational Snippet from Chapter 1, the settings are vivid, contrasting the freedom of the outdoors with claustrophobic interiors. This is a very fine novel indeed.
Stella Clark at The Australian (apologies if this is paywalled for some readers) found it ‘engrossing’ (and so did I).
Author: Stephen Orr
Publisher: Wakefield Press 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press