Thursday, April 16, 2015

Under the Visible Life by Kim Echlin

Under the Visible Life / Kim Echlin
Toronto: Hamish Hamilton, c2015.
348 p.

This is a fantastic read, a story of family, friendship, and the power of music. The strong writing and international focus of Echlin’s earlier novels are also found in this one, creating a captivating read. Her style, which is a rather deliberate and restrained one, works well in this overview of two women's lives, carrying through from the 50s to the 80s.

Two women, Mahsa and Katherine, are both jazz pianists who create a powerful friendship through their commitment to their art, in the face of all sorts of family ordeals.

Both women have had unusual upbringings; Katherine was raised by a single mother in 1950s Hamilton, Mahsa was raised by her strict Uncle & Aunt in Pakistan after her parents were murdered. Both of them are half American and half 'something else' (Afghani in Mahsa's case, Chinese in Katherine's). This element also shapes their experiences in art and society.

Early on, Katherine married another jazz musician and had 3 children in quick succession; Mahsa is forced into marriage with an older man in her 20s, and has 2 children quickly. Despite their differing backgrounds, Katherine and Mahsa have much in common, including their love for piano.

They develop a friendship through jazz when Mahsa moves back to Montreal with her family, and then meets Katherine in New York. Being a jazz pianist is really the expression of their most independent, essential selves, and they maintain their playing despite the vagaries of their difficult lives. They deal with their roles as mothers, as women in the man's world of 20th century jazz, and as independent individuals in relationship with their children, lovers, parents, friends and more.

The writing is so smooth, their stories told in counterpoint, it's like the entire book is jazz. The writing is deep but fast moving and the characters (even the side characters) are all fully drawn and fascinating. Music is the thread that holds together this thoughtful tale of two women’s lives. If you are a music lover or enjoy stories that delve into the deeper issues that shape the arc of
a life, you will find much to appreciate in this book.

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Further Reading

Wayne Grady's Emancipation Day also covers the length of a life across the 20th century, a life based in music and complicated by issues of race and identity. It's also focused partly in Canada and partly in the US (this time Windsor & Detroit).

Ann Ireland's first novel A Certain Mr. Takahashi, and well as her latest novel, The Blue Guitar, both deal with music and/or musicians, family dynamics and dysfunctional relationships. They are both set in Canada, and deal with issues of self-actualization and individuation, whether that's between sisters or a gay couple with a significant age difference.

12 comments:

  1. What a lovely review, Melwyk! This sounds like a terrific reading choice, especially for those who deeply enjoy and appreciate music.

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    1. Thanks Suko! Yes, it's a very enjoyable read.

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  2. It's the fact that the two main characters are jazz pianists that really makes me want to read this book. I took a semester of jazz piano in college. I wasn't great at it, but I had a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing this book!

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    1. If you have a love of jazz piano you'd definitely be interested in getting to know these characters.

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  3. I like the sound of this! Just been reading Miriam Toews' All My Puny Sorrows which is also about a female pianist. Great book!

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    1. Great addition to the female pianist oeuvre ;) Thanks for the rec, I didn't realize that book had this element to it.

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  4. This is on my TBR and I am very keen. If you haven't read Elephant Winter, I think you would love it (although it does sound a little different than this more recent work); it's on my list for rereading this year.

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    1. I haven't -- this my first Echlin. Elephant Winter does sound intriguing. I think my next Echlin will be her non-fic work on Inanna though...

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  5. As a big Echlin fan, I was delighted to find this on our local library shelf a month or so ago. It was a fascinating novel -- the music, the family dynamics, the friendships. And so beautifully written.

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    1. Oh, I agree. So much complexity crammed in there ;) But not hard to read at all -- it just flowed.

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Thanks for stopping by ~ I hope you will leave your comments and reflections to let me know what you think!