Five Novels I’ve Read with a Music Theme

Regular readers will know I have a predilection for novels with an art theme. I’ve already written two posts in this series about that and there’s at least one more in the works. Music, however, is a much rarer theme in my reading. Below are five novels I’ve enjoyed where music is central, all with links to reviews on Cover image for The Commitments by Roddy Doylethis blog apart from the first.

It’s ages since I read anything by Roddy Doyle but I remember the Barrytown series with great affection. It begins with The Commitments featuring the eponymous band masterminded by Jimmy Rabbitte, determined to bring soul music to Dublin. The resulting disparate bunch are largely recruited from a newspaper advert which also attracts Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan who claims an enviable musical pedigree. Squabbles break out when Joey’s success with the female backing singers rubs up against the egos of the other band members and it all ends in tears but not until The Commitments have made their mark. All this is played out against a background of working-class ‘80s Dublin with a fabulous soundtrack that you almost feel like singing along to if you’re as big a soul fan as I am. Alan Parker’s film is a faithful, very funny adaptation, starring some memorably talented young musicians. I’ve seen it several times and would happily see it again.

I’d love to show off my jazz erudition and tell you that I knew the title of Laura Warrell’s Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm was aCover image for Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm by Laura Warrell Jelly Roll Morton quote but that’s not the case. It follows trumpet player Circus Palmer, just turned forty and still behaving as if he’s a charismatic young man with a promising future while teetering on the brink of a midlife crisis. Circus has a string of women whose lives he passes in and out of but aside from the mother of his daughter, Koko, the newly pregnant Maggie is the one constant. Over the next few years, Circus will be faced with the responsibility of parenthood and the waning of his musical star, not to mention his allure. He may think himself the centre of the universe but it’s the women who tell us their stories, all of them strong, not least Koko who sees herself through the awkwardness of adolescence. An absorbing, thoroughly enjoyable piece of fiction which vividly portrays the effects of too much adulation.

Cover image for School of Velocity by Eric Beck RubinEric Beck Rubin’s School of Velocity is named after a score by Carl Czerny, much used by pianists to develop their technical skill, or so the internet tells me. A talented pianist, Jan’s time is taken up with practising until he snags the attention of his exuberant fellow student Dirk, given to partying, offering advice on girls and endless joshing humour. These two become inseparable until they leave school, not meeting again until Jan introduces Dirk to Lena with whom he’s in love. In the ensuing decades Jan is plagued by inexplicable auditory hallucinations. Rubin’s neatly crafted novella is a wrenching story of love and its repression, a quietly powerful piece of fiction about knowing and accepting yourself, and the trouble that will come from choosing not to do so.

Sean Michaels’ Us, Conductors is about Russian inventor, Leon Theremin and his electrical musical instrument for which the Cover image for Us, Conductors by Sean Michaelsplayer’s body acts as the device’s conductor. Leon’s invention goes down a storm, catching the attention of Lenin who sees an opportunity. He’s packed off to the United States for a concert tour, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Glen Miller and George Gershwin, making a splash in American society and falling in love, staying in the US until returning to the motherland is his only option. Oddly, within six months of reading Michaels’ book I read a second novel about this strange instrument: Tracy Farr’s The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. When I spotted a listing for a theremin concert I snapped up a couple of tickets. We left during the interval, curiosity sated. If you want to hear what it sounds like pop over to YouTube where you’ll find a demonstration by its inventor.

Cover image for Under the Visible Life by Kim EchlinKim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life is about two very different women bound together by their love of music in a friendship that endures through love lost and won, marriage arranged and otherwise, and raising children in the most difficult circumstances. Mahsa is the child of an Afghan woman and an American man who wins a scholarship to study music in Montreal. Katherine, the child of a white mother and a Chinese father, carves out a place for herself, playing piano in a jazz band, pursuing music, love and family with a passionate determination. When these two meet, an indissoluble bond is formed. Music is the breath of life to Katherine and Mahsa, running through their story like a constant yet ever-changing refrain. There’s so much to admire about this novel, not least Echlin’s beautifully polished writing.

Any novels with a musical theme you’d like to share?

If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here.

33 thoughts on “Five Novels I’ve Read with a Music Theme”

  1. I haven’t read any of these, but I’m reminded if the wonderful short story collection Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishigaro which I adored.
    Happy New Year & Happy Reading for the year ahead Susan.

    1. Thanks so much for reminding me of Nocturnes, Claire. I read and enjoyed it many years ago but had forgotten all about it.

      A very happy New Year to you, too, reading and otherwise.

  2. Thanks for the reminder about Us Conductors… I loved that book!

    Other music themed books I recommend are Joseph O’Connor’s The Thrill of it All, Iain Banks’ Espedair Street, Jessica Tu’s A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing, Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues and Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music.

      1. I keep a little list of potential book post ideas and compiling a list of novels about books was one of them. I had the titles jotted down but had forgotten about Us Conductors.

  3. I love a novel about music—heartily seconding Kim’s recommendation of An Equal Music, I can also suggest Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (about conservatoire students in repressive post-war China), The Time Of Our Singing and Orfeo by Richard Powers (truly some of the most evocative novels about music I’ve ever read) and Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night (soapier plot-wise, but greatly evocative re. Belle Epoque opera).

  4. The only one of these that I’m familiar with is The Commitments, via the Alan Parker film. As for other novels with a music theme, Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with A Horn immediately springs to mind – a novel inspired by the music of Bix Beiderbecke. Baker understood the rhythms of jazz, and this quality comes through in the text.

  5. Tremain’s Music and Silence? And her The Gustave Sonata? You and Kim have a good idea about jotting down themes and books to satisfy them. Noted! As are the books in your review.

    1. Ah, yes, I have a very chequered reading experience with Ms Tremain but I’m glad you mentioned those two for any readers keen for more novels with a musical theme.

      I’m pretty sure I nicked the idea for a themed series from Kim!

  6. I haven’t read any of these but music is an interesting background for a novel. I remember enjoying The Half Blood Blues, and The Piano Tuner though that was some years ago now. I know I enjoyed both of those.

  7. Two books I thoroughly recommend The Conductor by Sarah Quigley This is a novel about Shostakovich writing his tenth during the siege of Leningrad and the other is Honeybees and Distant Thunder by Riku Onda (trans from the Japanese) and concerns a prestigious piano competition. I learned a great deal about piano competitions from this novel.

  8. Some of these sound really interesting! Another lovely novel about music is Bernard Maclaverty’s Grace Notes, which really captures musical and compositional thinking.

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