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Patrick Langley:The Variations

The book opens in 1518 in Strasbourg when Frau Trauffea started to sing. As you can see from the link, this actually happened. She sang and danced till she collapsed and then recovered and carried on. But she was not alone. Large numbers joined her. Some died from their exertions. Eventually it died away. What caused it? Mass hysteria? A mass psychogenic disorder? Rye flour contaminated with the fungal disease ergot? No-one is sure, except for some of the characters in this book. For them it was caused by the gift.

The gift, all too often, is not a gift but more of a curse. The institute around which much of the plot revolves calls people who have it acoustically gifted. The gifted fall into such states, the symptoms by turns reminiscent of fugue states, catatonia, or somnambulism, and suggesting both dissociation from one’s immediate surroundings and absorption in a daydream. Sometimes they refer to the ghost at the door, which is often when they first realise they have it. The people who have the gift – the gifted – seem to communicate with the past, particularly with the dead and, more particularly, seem to be attuned to certain musical resonances and, accordingly, are often gifted musicians.

The institute mentioned above is the Agnes’s Hospice for Acoustically Gifted Children. It is very old and is in London, sitting on some valuable property. The Agnes in question is not the well-known Saint Agnes but the presumably fictitious Agnes of Dartmoor. She was born in around 900 CE on the edge of the Somerset tin mines. She apprenticed herself to her father in her early years, and was making her first instruments — bells and lyres — by the age of ten. Bells, as we shall see, are key to the acoustically gifted. After her father’s death, she travelled around England and Ireland and built up a following, which has continued to the present-day, when this book is primarily set.

The dean of the Hospice is Ellen Montague, also master of the bells. She claims to be descended from Frau Truffea. The Hospice takes in wards who have the gift, cares for them and trains them in music and issues surrounding the gift. They often go on to greater things, not necessarily connected with the gift. While we follow various characters, the key ones are associated with Selda Heddle. She and Ellen had been wards together and got on very well – most of the time, though like many friends, they did have their disagreements. Selda had gone on to become a famous composer, noted, in particular for her Snow Trio. Her career had been up and down, with success and failure but it had enabled her to buy a remote house – Bell Hall. She had married Garth. He eventually moved on but did manage to father a daughter, Anya. The gift is often passed from parent to child, but Anya did not want to know about it. However when she marries, the gift clearly passes to her son, known as Wolf.

Wolf got on fairly well with his grandmother but keeps away from the gift, living a normal life. Selda will die in mysterious circumstances. After a serious snowstorm. A man trying out his new snow shoes, discovers her body in the snow, near Bell Hall. Her death turns out not be simple hypothermia.

Wolf and his mother clear Bell Hall after Selda’s death and this brings them closer to together. However in her will she has left money to the Hospice – Wolf knew nothing of this hospice – and left her papers and a battered old car to Wolf. Anya gets Bell Hall.

We follow Selda’s career in some detail. She was born in Coventry during the Coventry Blitz (full details given). She shows an interest in music early on and is particulrly inspired when her fther steals a record player and records from a bombed building and then manages to steal a piano (which she will leave to Wolf in her will). She will seemingly teach herself to play. However she hears voices, but cannot understand why her mother does not. She also has the fits associated with the gift. As we know she goes to the hospice and goes on to learn composition. She will marry Garth and have a daughter, Anya. Mother and daughter do not, on the whole, get on well. But she struggles with the gift She tries to force the gift back to where it belongs. She is an undertaker to the dead, will bury them all in snow and silence. And she tries. But her energy is spent. They are too much for her, too noisy.

Selda travelled round the world and though Anya moves away early on, she and Wolf both keep in touch with Selda, though they had had little contact with her in the year preceding her death. We follow her story right up to her death.

The book opens, however, at the Hospice, when the night warden contacts Ellen ( who lives on the premises) as a strange man has turned up, shouting, singing and saying he wants a lobotomy. Ellen makes it clear that they do not accept random strangers. Anyone wanting to become a ward must apply through normal channels. However, when she goes and investigates, she soon realises than the man in question is Wolf.They call in a paediatrician – a former ward. When Anya turns up she wants to resort to more traditional means and calls an ambulance. We will also follow what happens to Wolf and why the gift seems to have kicked in, despite his efforts to keep it at bay.

This is a most interesting book with its focus on the gift and how it can affect those who have it without warning and often in a negative way. The focus is on Wolf and his grandmother, Selda, and how their life becomes a struggle because of it, though it seems to be the basis for Selda’s musical talent. However, we do see Ellen and how it affects her. If she has a fit/goes into a trance, we do not see it. We do see her with her bells that seem to have something of a healing affect on those who have gone into a trance and we also see her communing with Selda, after Selda has died. In short it can seemingly be managed in some people.

Finally, I must comment on the rather excessive use of Americanisms/American solecisms. No-one in 1960s-1970s UK would say train station (station or railway station), for example. A minor annoyance in a fine book.

Publishing history

First published in 2023 by Fitzcarraldo