Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 4, 2023

An Ungrateful Instrument (2023) by Michael Meehan

As readers know by now, I ‘rediscovered’ the novels of South Australian Michael Meehan late last year. In anticipation of his new novel An Ungrateful Instrument, (Transit Lounge, 2023) I resurrected from my reading journal a review of his first novel, The Salt of Broken Tears, (1999), and his second: Stormy Weather (2000), and a week after that, I’d retrieved from the TBR and reviewed Below the Styx (2010). I was smitten!

And now, An Ungrateful Instrument.  I shall try not to gush, but seriously, this is one of the most exquisite books I’ve read in a long time.

This is a novel of fathers and sons; death and immortality; and the tension between originality and wanting to preserve things of beauty unchanged.  It’s about the glorious voice of a musical instrument — ephemeral until the advent of sound recording — and the silent but powerful voice of the writer.  And it’s about a world of privilege and power and the conditions in which creativity might flourish.

Antoine Forqueray (1672-1745) (Wikipedia)

An Ungrateful Instrument begins with the melancholy voice of Charlotte-Elizabeth, an elective mute.  She tells us of her brother Jean-Baptiste Forqueray who is beaten and brutalised by his father into being the musical prodigy he was himself as a boy. Antoine Forqueray performed before Louis XIV at the age of ten and was appointed as a court musician when still a teenager.  In contrast with the elegance of courtly music, Antoine Forqueray’s style is wild, energetic and fiendishly difficult.  (A listener at YouTube describes him as ‘a beast’. You can see why here.)

Brilliant, inventive, demonic’ Antoine wants immortality, as so many men do, and he wants his son to be a reproduction of himself, following exactly the same path so that his own glory can transcend death and live on through his son and grandsons.

His self-belief in his own genius, fostered by the admiration of the king at Versailles, is such that he will not tolerate having his music written down, to be copied by his inferiors.  Only he and his son can play it, and he beats the boy into perfect fidelity to what he hears his father play.

He beat Charlotte-Elizabeth viciously too, because he wanted her to be a prodigy as well, as evidence that his genius can even extend to siring a female prodigy. But she could not — or would not — play, and at eight she retreats into silence, a shadow always hovering on the edge of things, invisible and silent as women mostly are in the historical record.

This beginning of the novel has a sombre tone, more so because of the mother’s malevolent presence. Her hatred of the father is intense, but she offers her hapless children no intervention, other than to tell and retell the story of Chronos, the Titan who devoured his own children rather than be superseded by them, and how it was only through the cunning of his wife Rhea that his sixth son Zeus (a.k.a. Jupiter) survived.

Bass viol (viola da gamba) (Wikipedia)

However, a gentle mentor comes into Jean-Baptiste’s young life.  Seeking solace in the forest, he comes across a luthier, for whom the boy is The Chosen One, for whom he will create a special viol* with his most precious timbers.  (Like Arthur, who shapes his destiny by being the only one who can lift Excalibur), Jean-Baptiste is the only one who can ‘hear’ the perfect timber and must be the one who chooses #NoSpoilers certain design features of the viol. Unlike the father who forces the boy to his will, the luthier coaxes the timber to be its best. It is this mentor who is the catalyst for Jean-Baptiste to defy his father and create his own music.

*Not to be confused with the viola.  It’s a different shape, and it’s played between the knees (gamba).  See Wikipedia which has lots of samples of its beautiful sound.

Charlotte-Elizabeth who sees and hears everything, and is the one to whom everyone confides their secrets, is horrified when she realises that Jean-Baptiste wants to confess his betrayal to his father, and to show him the finished viol.

Jean-Baptiste Forqueray (1699-1782) (Wikipedia)

The father’s malicious envy and fear extends to banishing the adult son, disinheriting him and threatening his position as musicien-du-roi.  

The story of this viol’s making weaves its way through the narrative because it is central to the story of human creativity which must be cherished and nurtured in the young.

An Ungrateful Instrument is a hopeful — and purposeful — novel.  Jean-Baptiste is bullied into a marriage, but he finds love.  Like the real Jean-Baptiste he composes his own music, including a piece called Jupiter.  And the luthier understands his trauma and teaches him to transcend it:

My brother recalled, for Marie-Rose, something the old man had said or almost said while scraping smooth the back, as though he knew something of violence and imprisonment and all the pain to come.  He said, as though speaking to the snow, the ice, the river, that all things exist at their best in deep connection to each other.  That when one thing fails us we can lean upon another, and that in spite of the very worst betrayals we must put our trust in the things that are born and reborn about us, that live and flourish beyond ourselves.

That we live best by living most closely with those things that live beyond our time. We are born into the world, and we die out of it.  Our lives, pain and pleasure, are fragile and of small duration.  But in that short span of time we have, we can learn to live in closeness to the best that is around us, to breathe some part of our own living into all we see, so that at least some part of our own life runs on with the life of other things. (p.153)

An Ungrateful Instrument is available on Kindle, but if you can get the hardback edition, it’s a work of art in itself.  Quite apart from the beauty of the still life reproduced on the dustjacket, it has fine quality papers and cover boards, a ribbon to keep your place, and gorgeous endpapers.

Author: Michael Meehan
Title: An Ungrateful Instrument
Cover design: Peter Lo
Cover image: Painting by Francoise Desportes (1661-1743)
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2023
ISBN: 9780645565300, hbk, with ribbon, 212 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Image credits:


  1. Sounds like it covers a lot in just over 200 pages. Fathers and sons, music, ambition – all topics that interest me. The hubris of some!


    • As I was writing this, it crossed my mind that yours is the kind of book group that would love this book. There’s more to it than I have outlined here: the mother is a very complex character, and then there are the relationships that Jean-Baptiste has with two women and his sister.
      And then there’s the whole thing about transitional eras in music as well…


      • I think you might be right – we have a lot of music enthusiasts in our group.

        Liked by 1 person

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