Alice hears music through the wall, music that disturbs her for the memories it invokes of a piano recital she once gave in Oxford many decades before, when she was married to Edward, an economics professor.
Music and Freedom by Zoë Morrison recently won the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction and it is well-deserved. Standing in front of a Burne-Jones window, Alice saw her “arms were sapphire, emerald, mauve, ruby, my body was burning orange, my feet were gold.” There are so many rich colours in this prose, evoking the colours of the changing seasons in Oxford, and the nostalgia for the sun-bleached colours and drought-ridden landscape of Alice’s Australian home. But as music leaches from her life, the palate turns grey. In many ways, I was reminded of Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World.
Like Bishop’s novel, the focus of Music and Freedom is a marriage, between Edward and Alice. Theirs is a short courtship, and when tragedy precludes Alice from going home to Australia, she is cornered into marriage. Still expecting to continue her promising musical career, Alice becomes increasingly locked into an abusive relationship. For many survivors of domestic abuse, Edward’s campaign of ‘death’ by a thousand cuts, will ‘cut’ close to the bone. “It was just that I was so hopeless, weak, stupid and lacking. Some of it I couldn’t help. Women were like this. I was sick (women sickened easily). I needed assistance, correction, instruction.”
Alice feels her Self changing under Edward’s regime of abuse:
“I was feeling some horrible thing shift around inside me. I felt it had a shape or, rather, that it had taken the shape of the inside of my body. It distracted me, that shape, that mass of darkness, it weighed me down, it made me slow and quiet, it made me want to lie down and sleep.”
Music is a metaphor for Alice’s life. She yearns to escape back to Australia, back ‘home’, and she compares this to classical music theory: “all the time, every time, that piece returned home.” But as Alice become further enmeshed in an abuser-abused relationship, she makes furtive escapes to the train station and clandestine social visits, only to ‘return home’ to Edward each time. It is a closed loop of life. “It begins like this, it ends like this”, and there does not seem to be much hope for Alice to escape her awful existence.
By the end of Part One, Alice is “a soul quietly giving up.” She is 73 years old, and has not fulfilled any of her potential in life and she has no close relationships. But then in Part Two, she meets the pianist playing the Rachmaninoff through the wall, and Alice experiences a “returning to oneself”, beginning slowly with walking into town for shopping. This section of the book is short, a ‘transition’ and the reader can feel something stirring within Alice, a “beating, beating, beating.”
Part Three begins with a discordant scene, where the opposing forces in Alice’s life come together, at first clashing, then finding their way to each other through the wall.
“I still don’t know how they did it, with no nodding or glancing, no visual cues. It was all in the listening, and the music, and the boldness to play loud when one part held the tune, and the ability to hold the rhythm of the other while playing their own part.”
In the ‘coda’ of her life, Alice is emboldened to return home, where she writes her life story: one day spent writing the first 73 years, and six days for what happened next.
Weeks after reading this novel, the story lingers. It is an exquisite piece of music, reminding us that the music is not over till it’s over.