Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 25, 2011

Distant Music (2001), by Lee Langley

Distant Music was published back in 2001 so it’s 10 years old, but I picked it up fairly recently as a serendipitous find in one of the chain book stores in my local mega-mall.  (I think someone gave me a book voucher to spend there).

Lee Langley is a British writer.  I have previously read and enjoyed Changes of Address (1987)and A House in Pondicherry (1995) but somehow missed Persistent Rumours (1992) the middle one in the prize-winning trilogy set in India where Langley was born.  These books are now out-of-print, which is a pity.

Distant Music is a departure not only in setting but also in style.  If the cover makes you think of historical chick-lit, think again, because it’s more adventurous than that.  It’s a story that spans six centuries, featuring separate but linked stories about Esperança and Manuel:

  • in 1429 as a peasant girl and a sailor in Madeira;
  • in 1489 in Faro, Portugal, as a rich girl and a printer of maps;
  • in 1855 in Lisbon as a bookish recluse and a bookseller; and
  • in 2000 as a disorientated middle-aged woman and a jazz musician.

The constant thread in the book is the persistence of frustrated love.


The peasant girl Esperança yearns to learn to read the Hebrew Bible that Manual the Jewish sailor shows her, but it is not to be.  She stubbornly refuses an offer of marriage, hoping Manual will return.  She makes a life for herself by trading her body for grapevines so that she gradually acquires a vineyard and economic independence.  The child she bears to her tormentor dies, so there is no issue.

Yet later that century Esperança is a rich girl in Faro and somehow she ‘recognises’ Manuel who this time is a printer.  To her father’s dismay she leaves his house  of luxury and converts to Judaism – and is then forced to flee when Jews are expelled first from Spain and then from Portugal.  Esperança throws herself and her sole remaining child from the ship rather than submit to the captain’s lust, so once again there is no issue.

(By coincidence I read Distant Music the same day that I saw the film Sarah’s Key and was struck yet again by the way Europe has for centuries tried to expel Jews from its borders.  Sarah’s Key is based on French complicity in the Nazi genocide of the Jews; the expulsion of the Jews in Distant Music is based on historical facts in Spain and Portugal.)

Part 3 is also based on historical fact: there was a sort of Jack-the-Ripper preying on washer-women in Lisbon in the 19th century.  In Langley’s story the yearning to be educated reaches fruition for this Esperança – she shares her love of books with a bookseller who is accused of the crime so again class differences and religious persecution intervene.  She has no children either.

Although each story has puzzling references into the past, each is separate and absorbing.  Once you surrender to the strangeness of it, the narrative works though there is a persistent sense of melancholy foreboding and you know things will end badly.

It’s when the millennium year bleeds into the stories from the past that it becomes surreal.  In Part 4 Esperança was nicknamed Essie at school in England; as an adolescent she re-names herself Hope but in this story she is a middle-aged woman searching for identity and for her memories as she flees through busy London pursued by Mel (Emmanuel).   The style of dialogue and setting is in marked contrast to the historical elements of the book and it’s (deliberately) quite disorientating.

It is in Part 4 that at times the pervasive thread of the Jew-as-Outsider threatens to overwhelm the story, particularly when the young people discuss Israeli politics.  Langley’s characters are relaxed about religion and there are tentative attempts to explore modernity v tradition, a vexed issue for Jews because they are still in recovery from the Nazi attempt to exterminate their identity forever.  However it seems to me that there is a bit too much going on in Part 4 – perhaps this was meant to mirror the millenium angst of the period but the multiple examples of angst are too many for the author to explore properly or resolve.

Still, this was an interesting book to read and has reminded me to keep an eye out for Langley’s books at the library.

Author: Lee Langley
Title: Distant Music
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 009943346x
Source: Personal library, purchased from Dymocks $21.95AUD

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