If you’re anything like me, you just won’t be able to help yourself: within a page or two of starting this fascinating book you’ll be Googling theramins, seduced by the magic of words into yearning to hear what they sound like. Tracy Farr’s debut novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, invents the life of a woman who wanted to be ‘Music’s Most Modern Musician’, and who became the foremost proponent of the first electrical musical instrument – the theramin, invented by Leon Theramin in the 1920s.
On You Tube there are some excruciating examples of well-known tunes played on this bizarre instrument that is played without touch, but if you want to see and hear an example par excellence, it’s Celia Sheen’s rendition of that eerie theme for Midsomer Murders that shows what a mesmerising instrument a theramin can be:
Lena Gaunt has an awful childhood. Shipped off to a Perth boarding school while her remote, indifferent parents live an expat life in Singapore, she becomes a solitary child, devoted to music. She begins with the piano, but progresses to a cello, bought for her by her one solace, her larger-than-life Uncle Valentine. When her mother dies she is recalled to Singapore to run her father’s household and give the occasional performance on her cello, but it’s not long before her independent spirit asserts herself. When she behaves in ways unexpected of a young lady in her position (i.e. white, privileged) she is shunted off again.
But this time she heads for Sinful Sydney! It’s in Sydney that she discovers the two loves of her life: the theramin, and an exotic woman called Beatrix Carmichael. They meet on the night that Lena makes her debut as a performer and the attraction is instantaneous.
Beatrix, a modernist artist, shared Lena’s fascination with the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the last stages of its construction. From Farr’s description of her paintings, Beatrix put me in mind of Grace Cossington Smith and her iconic painting, The Bridge in Curve (1930).
We talked about everything and nothing, on the trip to Manly; and we watched the bridge.
‘Look at it’,’ Beatrix said, ‘God, its so beautiful. I love painting it. Not just the bridge, The water, the light. The shapes. The spaces between the shapes. The way they change as we move past them. I like to try to paint that.’
From the water, the view of the bridge was different than [sic] from anywhere on land – from that low angle, looking up, it seemed so much larger. Its overall shape had not changed since my view of it from the Houtman as I’d steamed into Sydney for the first time. The shape was the same, but denser, spaces filled, lines and curves connected, It looked stronger, more permanent, even though the two arcs of the bridge did not meet. The air around and between the arcs hummed and rang with the sounds of construction from the bridge, of human voices drowned by metallic ringing. (p.144)
Later, when Lena visits Beatrix at home, she sees this fascination with the bridge transformed by the artist’s brush:
It was the bridge viewed from the verandah. Somehow, though, I could see it not just from the verandah, but from the ferry, from the other side of the harbour, from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, all at once; all of those views and angles were combined. The painting was all about movement, and shape. It swam before my eyes. (p.148)
There are so many beautiful passages in this novel, I am hard pressed to choose which ones to share. Farr conveys the sensual experience of making music with a theramin as perhaps only a musician can:
And so it was on that hot February afternoon in 1928 I put aside my beloved cello and for the first time raised my sweating arms and drew my fingers through the air to cause music to issue from a tangle of wire, glass, Bakelite and wood. I did not play perfectly that day – that would come after long practice, take some time to achieve – but that day, when I first raised my hands to the machine, that was when I first felt my hands disrupt the electromagnetic field, felt the waves swell through the blood and flesh of my body; felt electrical by nature.
In the many years since that hot day, this instrument has become known as theremin. But the Professor and I, we called it by the names he coined: Aetherphone, or Aetherwave Instrument. The first time I played the aetherphone, I felt the rush of the electrical field through my body, I felt like a god. I felt like a queen. I felt like a conqueror. And I wanted to play it forever. I can’t describe the feeling accurately. It was part visceral sensation, part physics; the relation between body and air, electrons aligning. A crystalline cold swept through my body when I first played the theramin, swiftly replaced by a bone-warming heat, a calm like none I had known. I recall bowing my head in awe. (p131-2).
The device Farr uses to structure Lena’s story also derives from the creative arts. At the beginning of the story Lena is an old woman in her eighties. Recalled to the stage for a concert featuring all kinds of electronic music, she attracts the interest of Mo Patterson, a feature film maker who wants to document her life. Her visits to negotiate how Lena’s story might be told allow for flashbacks of Lena’s life as she recalls her joys and sorrows, and for her reflections on what she might tell, and what she might conceal. It turns out that Lena and Mo share more than first seems to be the case and her final gift to the film-maker is the catalyst for an enigmatic redemption.
This is an absorbing book that held my interest throughout. Farr captures rapture and tragedy with consummate skill to create so remarkable a portrait, that it’s hard to believe that Lena Gaunt is an entirely fictional creation.
There’s an intriguing interview with the author on Radio National.
Author: Tracy Farr
Title: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press
Or direct from Fremantle Press (where you can also read a sample chapter and download questions for book group discussions).