Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 20, 2022

Water Music (2021), by Christine Balint (2021 co-winner of the Seizure Viva La Novella Prize)

Co-winner of the 2021 Viva La Novella Prize with Every Day is Gertie Day by Helen Meany (see my review), Christine Balint’s novella Water Music is an exquisite portrait of the way artistic ambition often comes with a hard price to pay.

Set in 18th century Venice, it’s the story of 16-year-old Lucietta, an orphan with an unknown benefactor who makes her education possible.  She grows up to be a talented violinist, and is given a place at the Derelitti Convent, the (real-life) musical orphanage for girls.

Unlike *yawn* many historical novels set in Venice, Water Music isn’t an homage to this most beautiful of Renaissance cities.  Lucietta has a limited life, and her horizons are limited by her gender and her social class.  For her there is only her waterside home, and the convent.  Place is superbly realised: the reader can smell the dank fishy air; she can feel the chill of the convent’s stone walls.

Lucietta grows up in foster care with her fisherman father, and her mother, a wet nurse.  She guesses at her parentage, but her destiny seems a foregone conclusion:

I was reared on water and fish like a bird.  So much fish that I know its smell is in the pores of my skin.  When I walk in the market, I notice a lady’s maid screwing up her nose and stepping away from me.  In the night I lie awake, wondering if the stench will ever leave my skin. (p.1-2)

That is not what Lucietta wants:

If I stayed with Mamma, there would be no other future for me.  One day, I would have my own fisherman for a husband, my own dingy smoke-filled room, my own fish heads to feed to the neighbourhood cats. (p.6)

That is not what Mamma wants for Lucietta either.  A woman determined to exercise what little agency she can, she chose to earn her own income as a wet nurse rather than be a fishwife.  Her ambition is that Lucietta should have a different life.

Mamma had requested of the Pietà that I be allowed to stay with her until the age of sixteen to learn how to live in a family.  From when I was very young, she said that I would have to find a better life: a husband who would appreciate my gift for music and keep me in rooms that were warm and light with windows that opened out over the Canale Grande.  (p.6)

The novel begins as Lucietta prepares to leave her family.  Well aware of the gulf in social class that the girl must step into, her father shines her shabby boots with squid ink and cooking fat. Her brother Lionello re-soles them with offcuts from a luthier, and makes the heels a little higher.   Her mother darns her moth-eaten cloak, braids a fine silk ribbon into her hair, and washes a heavy linen bedspread that took three years to make, in lemon soap to get rid of the stink of fish.

At 16, Lucietta  has to make a fateful choice, for once she is inside the locked wrought-iron door she will not have the freedom to leave. At home, her ambitions, nurtured by the love of her music, make it easy to choose.  At the imposing gates of the convent, with Lionello by her side, it is not so easy.

The nuns see to it that Lucietta is parted from all these symbols of her family’s love and the past life that she had.

Soon, because the nun’s habit and wimple cannot conceal her beauty, Lucietta has another choice to make.  A young noble asks for her hand:

I do not know what life with a nobleman would entail.  I try to imagine a room full of windows and light.  Looking out over the water at the gondolas passing by.  But the space presents a different kind of confinement.  And the isolation of it is frightening.  I like Don Leonardi well enough at a distance.  But to submit to him is another thing.  To be dependent on him for my understanding of my life.  To have to learn under him the rules of the Golden Book.  To rely on him for all my connections in the world. To have to surrender my purpose.  A married woman does not work seriously as a musician.  She may play occasionally for guests.  But her primary purpose is to maintain the household and her husband’s social standing.  Have I devoted my life to music simply to exchange it for what others see as a better life?  Am I to have no say at all in my future?

Balint doesn’t just de-romanticise the Cinderella fairy tale as a myth that substitutes one captivity for another, she also exposes the inevitabilities of social aspiration then, and maybe in our own era too. Escape into a different social class, for Lucietta, would mean severing all contact with the family that nurtured her. She would never see Lionello’s children.  For a generation of ‘boomers’, free university in the 1970s and a career in the professions often created a gulf between the parents who thought they wanted this, and their children who don’t ‘fit in’ anywhere.

Balint’s novel exposes the way women’s artistry and talent was compromised by the life choices available to them.  Water Music is an answer to the question, ‘if women have the same abilities as men, why doesn’t our artistic heritage include great works of art, music and literature by women?’

I will be hearing Christine Balint speak at the Port Fairy Literary Weekend in September in a panel with Lucy Treloar and Jennifer Down discussing “Writing Place”. Get your tickets here.

Author: Christine Balint
Title: Water Music
Cover art: Sam Paine
Publisher: Brio Books, 2021
ISBN: 9781922267610, pbk.,119 pages
Source: Personal copy.


  1. Lovely review, Lisa, of an enjoyable read. I too enjoyed her evocation of period and of place. I’d love to attend that session at Port Fairy!


    • I’m looking forward to it. I love Port Fairy, it’s a perfect little seaside town, with my kind of weather:)


      • Haha! (re the weather). I’ve only been there once – bought a pair of soft flat shoes there I remember – but I’ve been wanting to visit there again sometime.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Well you know I don’t like Hist.Fic (this one made me think of The Gondoliers), but I admire your reviews.
    I swam and played football in Port Fairy in the 1960s but it’s too cold, too wet, too many pine trees for me (Glad though you introduced me to the bookshop tweets).


    • Aren’t they wonderful? I love reading about the people who come in and chat and buy!


  3. Sounds fascinating Lisa, and I love that the author captures what would have been authentic experiences for a woman at the time. I get a bit fed up with these historical novel with kick-ass heroines who simply couldn’t have existed at the time!


    • Yes, totally agree. They create a distorted view of the historical world today’s feminists have descended from.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Sounds inspiring-I wonder if she is related to the highly creative Hungarian psychoanalyst, Michael Balint.


    • I don’t know. Alas, I could have asked her at the weekend, because she was at the Port Fairy Literary Weekend….


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