Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 31, 2020

Symphony for the Man, by Sarah Brill

Sarah Brill’s second novel Symphony for the Man is an exquisite book — do not let it slip under your radar because life is not as usual at the moment!

It is a deceptively simple story.  Narrated from the perspective of the two main characters in alternating brief ‘chapters’, the novel is about two lonely people whose paths cross in the busy city of Sydney.  What I really liked about it is that both have mental health issues, but that is not the focus of the story.  The last time I read a book that tackled mental illness as perceptively as this one was Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by S. A. (Sarah) Jones (see my review): what I admired about that book was that it showed that Isabelle’s condition is only part of her, and it doesn’t define her.  And this is true of the characters in Symphony for the Man too.  In different ways, both make a life on their own terms.

This is the blurb:

1999. Winter. Bondi. Harry’s been on the streets so long he could easily forget what time is. So Harry keeps an eye on it. Every morning. Then he heads to the beach to chat with the gulls. Or he wanders through the streets in search of food, clothes, Jules. When the girl on the bus sees him, lonely and cold in the bus shelter that he calls home, she thinks about how she can help. She decides to write a symphony for him.

So begins a poignant and gritty tale of homelessness and shelter, of the realities of loneliness and hunger, and of the hopes and dreams of those who often go unnoticed on our streets. This is the story of two outcasts – one a young woman struggling to find her place in an alien world, one an older man seeking refuge and solace from a life in tatters. It is also about the transformative power of care and friendship, and the promise of escape that music holds.

An uplifting and heartbreaking story that demands empathy. Amid the struggles to belong and fit in, we are reminded that small acts of kindness matter. And big dreams are possible.

Of course reading this book at this time in history is a heartbreaking reminder of the vulnerable people who are struggling to survive the lockdown.  Harry has an obsession with knowing the exact time, and his daily schedule involves approaching people to ask for it.  His meals come from ransacking bins, and sometimes from the everyday kindness of the local restaurants and cafes.  How homeless people are getting on in deserted shopping precincts where the hospitality industry has shut down, I can’t imagine.  Launch Housing in Melbourne is appealing for donations—no doubt there are other support organisations doing the same thing in other states—but what this crisis has taught us, I hope, is that our society should never have let homelessness become so devastatingly widespread.  I grew up in an era where the only homeless people were the ‘derros’ in the park, and the police came round each night and took them back to the City Watchhouse for a feed and a bed for the night.  Well, it isn’t like that now.  There is a horrible moment in the book when Harry discovers that  his bus shelter is modified to stop people from sleeping there. The cruel indifference of that beggars belief.

If any good comes out of the pandemic, it will be that societies reform existing social and employment structures that have left so many people vulnerable to instant joblessness and the Centrelink queue; sudden poverty with literally no money for food or anything else; escalating levels of unpayable personal debt; and the risk of eviction from rental properties for some of our most at-risk families. The nameless girl in Symphony for the Man would be in exactly that situation…

So, do you want to read a troubling story like this right now?  I would say, yes you do.  Because, like Philip Salom’s novels about Australia’s underclass, Symphony for the Man will lift your spirits.  No author could write such books without witnessing the kindness of strangers, and that is exactly what we all need right now.

The young woman who pays attention to Harry is alone and friendless in the city of Sydney.  She has a family from whom she is estranged, and a brother called Mark who does practical things, but is out of his depth when it comes to offering her the kind of emotional support she needs. Nevertheless, she has the capacity to feel empathy for one who is even more vulnerable than she is, and her ambition to do something for him is a beautiful gesture.

Sydney is an expensive city.  People flock to Sydney because here they can earn a lot of money.  But what Sydney gives with one hand it takes with the other.  To survive on nothing but what the government gives her she has learnt to be careful.  She controls her money.  Nothing is spent without thought and reason.  Control, she has decided, is power.

Most of her money goes to pay her rent.  The little bit left is for bills, food, travel and extras,  It’s the extras that have got her interest now.  Everything is written down in a notebook.  She doesn’t need to look in that book to know how much she has in her extras fund.  She looks anyway though.  It’s the rules.  And there it is.  $40.  Enough.  (p.17)

Enough for her to take the all-important first step towards writing the symphony for Harry.  She needs to buy a book to help her get started…

Because she recognises that she needs to educate herself about music in order to achieve her goal.

It is ridiculous. She knows that. her musical skills don’t extend past a shonky version of Für Elise she learnt around the age of ten. Her knowledge of musical theory relies on the fact that Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit and All Cows eat Grass. So it is ridiculous. She acknowledges that. But impossible? She doesn’t think it’s impossible. (p.23)

She thinks of the bookstore at the bottom of the hill.

She’s spent a lot of time in this bookstore.  Never bought anything but spent a lot of time there browsing the shelves, sheltering from the weather.  She likes the smell and feel of the shop.  When she is lonely she likes to go there and feel the press of a stranger’s body against hers as they negotiate the narrow aisles.  Some days she misses the touch of other people.  It’s been a long time since she’s felt two arms around her body, holding her, letting her know she’s not alone. (p.17)

Reading this book has made me more aware of the places people go when they are alone and lonely…

She’s been jobless for a while, but she takes the bus to Mark’s place to get some help with her CV:

Mark is an excellent liar because Mark doesn’t lie.  He uses truth in a strange way, a way others may not think to, but he doesn’t outright lie.  Through Mark’s fingertips on the keyboard her two years of working for the local video store, her six months in the mail room of an accounting firm, her café work, her failed film career and all of her other half-finished pursuits become the reason why she is the perfect candidate for work.  Low-level customer service or admin work.  But still, work.  (p. 44)

And with what she earns in an unexpectedly satisfying clerical job at a music school, she has money for extras:

The CD she leaves in his bus shelter is her first purchase with the money she’s earnt from her new job. (p.76)

It’s Beethoven’s Eroica.  Harry doesn’t have a player to play it on, but he finds a kindly librarian.  She not only brings him headphones, but hot soup too.

 

Carmel Bird has described the novel as simple, rippling, meditative prose that details a miracle of kindness, and it’s been optioned as a film by Sparkplug Films.

Author: Sarah Brill
Title: Symphony for the Man
Cover design by Deb Snibson, MAPG
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781925950069, pbk., 225 pages
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press

Available direct from Spinifex Press, who have a special offer on print editions: 20% off and free delivery for Australian orders till the end of May.  Or support your bricks-and-mortar bookshop during the pandemic.

Update 1/4/20 This information about availability internationally comes from the publicist Rachael McDiarmid:

The book is distributed in the UK by Gazelle and they probably have May release. Same with ebook as it gets distributed worldwide by IPG in the US. It will be in all the ebook vendors then but it should also be available now via Booktopia (who can also ship internationally and Spinifex has 20% discount and can ship to UK but it’s pricey).


Responses

  1. Thank you for drawing attention to this beautiful novel, and for including the music!

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    • One of my favourites. (I have been a Beethoven obsessive since I was a teenager).

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  2. It’s not to be missed and how your generosity of music lifted my flagging spirits. Living in Fremantle I see so many homeless people and it’s so distressing. That this awful disease may highlight their plight is quite ironical.

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    • Homeless people are everywhere, it seems. And presumably it will be even worse in places like America… surely if for no other reason than sheer selfishness, this crisis will make people realise that they are putting their own lives at risk when the virus spreads rapidly via people with no homes to isolate in.

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  3. I love this review Lisa. I fell in love with Symphony for the Man when I read it. I’m not surprised it’s been optioned for film. That last scene will work magically on the big screen :)

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    • Thanks, Rachael. I wonder how the film industry is getting on at the moment. Hopefully there will be a rescue package for the arts soon…

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  4. At first, I thought, oh no, I don’t think my spirit will be able to cope at this time but it actually sounds like it might be uplifting.

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    • I think so. There were times when I thought my heart would break, but learning that Harry could rely on the Vietnamese restaurant to give him a feed was a beautiful thing to know.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As Fay Kennedy says, there are a lot of homeless in Freo. At various times I’ve had family of them or with them. It brings my middle class self up short to be made to realise they are all people, and yes with odd dreams some of them, and not just lumps asleep in the park or in doorways begging.

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    • Did you ever see that series 7 Up, which traced the lives of children in Britain from the time they were seven years old? There was a gorgeous little boy called Neil who grew up to have mental health problems and he became homeless. It was hard to watch his life spiral downwards as he got older, but in recent episodes he managed to get elected to the local council, complete an arts degree and become a counsellor to others, showing that even in a heartless society like Britain, it was possible to survive and (almost) thrive, provided someone extends a hand to help. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_(film_series)#Neil

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      • I only saw the early years of 7 up, but yes there are people in my family who battle mental illness to lead productive lives.

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        • Good on them, it can’t be easy and I admire them for it.

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  6. This sounds like a must-read thanks Lisa. I too hope that some positive changes will come out of this crisis – stronger protection for tenants, an increase in unemployment payments (finally!), an understanding of the terrible vulnerability of the homeless (older single women especially) and maybe people avoiding huge cruise ships that cannot be good for our environment. I’ll put this one on my list for when the library opens again…

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    • I admit to having a poor opinion of the cruise ship industry, and I don’t understand the impulse that makes people take cruises when they surely must know about the pollution problems they cause and that they contribute almost nothing to local economies. Still, it’s dreadful that there are thousands of people stranded by the crisis, but even more dreadful that most of Australia’s infections were brought into the country by people from these ships.

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  7. I’ve seen a few speculative articles online about the possibility of a better world after this crisis. It would be something positive to emerge from such a mess. Let’s see.

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    • Well, what we’re seeing here is an ideologically right-wing government usually vociferously opposed to any kind of government intervention in the economy, behaving just like a socialist government in terms of subsidies to business. The question is, will they shell out billions to rescue shareholders while maintaining services and jobs, or will they be smart and nationalise enterprises that they now realise are essential such as airlines…

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      • Right wing governments always use the peoples money to subsidise their mates in business, it’s why business pays them so much.

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        • So, Bill, you don’t think ScoMo has had a Road to Damascus conversion then?

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      • Let’s hope they also see how vital it is we keep our public healthcare system Lisa – part of the problem in the USA has been the cost of Covid19 testing for individuals.

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        • It’s terrible, isn’t it? All those deaths, in the richest country in the world. How can they bear it?

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  8. This sounds just wonderful. I’ve checked and I don’t think it’s easily available in the UK yet. Fingers crossed it gets UK distribution. It does sound especially relevant now.

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    • I’ve just whizzed off a message to the publicist to find out about plans for international distribution and/or eBooks…

      Liked by 1 person

      • OK, we have an answer:
        Yes the book is distributed in the UK by Gazelle and they probably have May release. Same with ebook as it gets distributed worldwide by IPG in the US. It will be in all the ebook vendors then but it should also be available now via Booktopia (who can also ship internationally and Spinifex has 20% discount and can ship to UK but it’s pricey).
        I’ll add this info up above as well so that people don’t miss it:)

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      • Amazing, thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. […] book set in Sydney about Australia’s underclass, is the beautiful new novel Symphony for the Man by Sarah Brill.  It’s about a young woman who sees a homeless man and wants to do something […]

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