Life & Culture

Book review: August Blue - A musical mystery stuck in a minor key

Deborah Levy's new novel about a gifted pianist is a slow burner but takes off in the final 200 pages


August Blue
By Deborah Levy
Hamish Hamilton, £18.99

Born in South Africa in 1959, Deborah Levy came to Britain as a young schoolgirl. She is a prolific writer, the author of nine novels, three collections of short stories, more than 20 plays (three for radio) and three works of non-fiction.

She has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and once for The Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize.

She was part of that explosion of female Jewish writers in the 1990s that included Esther Freud (Hideous Kinky), Diane Samuels (Kindertransport), Julia Pascal (The Holocaust Trilogy) and Eva Hoffman (Lost in Translation). Interestingly, most of them are outsiders, refugees or children of refugees.

Elsa, the heroine of Levy’s new novel, August Blue, is also an outsider. A gifted pianist in her mid-thirties, it’s not clear where she lives or who her real parents were. She has “no loves, no children”.

She was adopted as a young child, already a precociously talented musician, by Arthur Goldstein, who becomes her piano teacher as well as her father, and is now 80.

Throughout the novel, Elsa is on the move. She travels from Athens to Piraeus and Poros, then to London, Paris, back to London, to Sardinia and finally back to Paris. All in a few months.

Is she in flight, she wonders. “In flight from your talent and from men.”

Even for a well-known pianist it is quite a lifestyle. Money it seems is not an issue, which is just as well because she doesn’t seem to do much work: one disastrous concert and a few lessons with a couple of young piano pupils.

And yet there she is renting an apartment on Bd. St. Germain and hanging out at the Café de Flore, one of the most expensive cafes in Europe.

The first 200 pages are a curiously uninteresting read. It’s hard to like Elsa or her friends, or to be interested in her obsession with the mysterious woman in the trilby whom she first encounters in a flea market in Athens “buying two mechanical dancing horses” and who she keeps coming across on her travels.

But then towards the end this melancholic novel takes off. The writing gets better. The plot becomes more gripping.

We suddenly start to find out the story of Elsa’s origins and how she came to be adopted by her teacher.

We even find out why horses matter so much to this strangely damaged but gifted young woman.

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