Music and Freedom is the debut novel of Melbourne author Zoë Morrison, and it’s been shortlisted for the Readings Prize. It tackles the grim subject of domestic violence, but is surprisingly uplifting.
Written in first person narrative in two time frames, it tells the story of Alice Murray, a child prodigy taught to play the piano by her mother, who is herself trapped in domestic violence on a failing orange orchard in rural NSW in the 1930s. The father drinks, and is increasingly violent, but people tolerate him because they remember what he was like before the war.
After a particularly frightening incident, Alice is sent to boarding school in Whitby, in the UK, where she endures a bleak boarding school existence except for lessons with her piano teacher, Miss May. She learns an extensive repertoire, and wins a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London.
It is when she is at a summer school in Oxford playing with a trio that she meets Edward, an economics professor, and, disastrously, she falls for him. He is a sour and bitter man whose economic philosophy does not find fertile ground until the Thatcher Years, and in the early days of their marriage he is demanding and unreasonable in his expectations that Alice focus on his needs at the expense of her music.
Inserted throughout this narrative are short pieces from the early 21st century, sometimes when Alice is in Oxford, and sometimes back in Carrabin, so the reader knows that she is a survivor. It is clear from the earliest of these narratives that she is badly damaged by her experiences but she is hoping for resurrection.
Morrison’s professional background is in the fields of social exclusion and domestic violence, and her characterisation is authentic. The novel shows how domestic violence can happen at all levels of society, and that people can be made vulnerable to it by the toxic combination of a manipulative partner and by circumstance. It also shows that a bystander who intervenes can make all the difference: there is a splendid moment when a bully is confronted by a description of what he is doing and told very firmly that it is not acceptable. Most readers will want to cheer at this.
Alice is vulnerable because her role model is a mother who submits to violence because there seems to be no alternative and because society makes excuses for her husband’s behaviour. Alice is also vulnerable because she has no close friends and confidantes; and because she has no money and no source of refuge. A crisis in her life occurs just as her friends graduate and move away and she turns to Edward because there seems to be no one else. But once he has her in his grasp Edward chips away at her self-confidence by blaming her for trivial offences and he makes her feel that she is worthless and that everything is her fault. She discovers on her first day as a wife that Edward has a very odd conception of married life:
I was starting to wonder if I had done something wrong. I took our empty plates to the sink, washed them, put them on the rack, as if this were all normal, as if I had done it all before, as if the sink were already as familiar as my own hand, and when he was about to get up I turned around and said, ‘Is something wrong, Edward?’
‘Are you feeling all right?’
‘Yes. Why do you ask?’
‘You’re very quiet.’
And then he looked at me and he said, ‘Nothing is wrong. We are married. This is a relationship, and relationships, you will soon find, work best when certain arrangements are understood. Like all relationships this involves an exchange. You will need to adapt to the fact that I work most of the time. At the moment I am doing more work than usual to make up for the time you wanted me to spend with you at the start of term and over the summer. Married life is completely different to courting, an entirely different relationship. As a wife, you will, of course, be occupied very soon with your own tasks.’ He took a last swig of tea, put the cup down on the table, and went back into his study.’ (p.110)
Alice’s first instinct is to laugh at this pompous declaration, but she soon finds that it is no laughing matter. This all sounds a bit grim, but Alice’s love of music glides through the text, lightening the mood even when Edward is sabotaging her attempts to play. There are references to many well-known pieces of music, and how they should be played, and how they make her feel. But what is disturbing is that all three of her teachers – her mother, Miss May at the Whitby School and Arthur Joiner at the Royal College – are all focussed on the music and offer Alice nothing to guide her emotional life. Her solitariness makes her all the more vulnerable.
There are also mysterious trails from the 21st century narrative to sustain the tension: Alice is alone in the Oxford house – burning books, filing music and making nuisance calls to someone, but to whom? And then there is the strange music coming from the empty house next door – is Alice mad, or is there really someone there?
Music and Freedom is an absorbing book. It is restrained in tone: although there is some physical violence it isn’t graphic, and the novel focusses more on the psychological tyranny of a man who is himself damaged by his own childhood. But Alice is not ever an entirely passive victim: she is strategic in some ways, and she manages to retain her sense of self and her dream of going home to Australia.
And she is determined to tell her story and be heard …
Author: Zoë Morrison
Title: Music and Freedom
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House) 2016
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House.
Available from Fishpond: Music and Freedom