Natasha Solomons's The Song Collector: A slight discord


In Natasha Solomons's The Song Collector (Sceptre, £16.99) the sons of a once grand Dorset family return home after the Second World War to find their country pile good for nothing except demolition. The youngest, "Fox", abandons his Cambridge studies and burgeoning music-making to help his brothers, demobbed and facing a changed world, save the estate.The eldest has a famous singer in tow, Edie Rose, who bewitches the young men with her fur coat and raw energy. Her ballads have been the sound of wartime Britain. This perfect English Rose turns out to have been a humble East End Jew.

Young Fox is obsessed with forestalling the end of the old ways. More aesthete than farmer, he makes his contribution to conservation by transcribing songs from old locals and re-fashioning them into new compositions.

Here is a green and pleasant portrait of longing for a lost home, full of English eccentricity. Descriptions of the country contrast with trips to town, to Claridge's, and Brick Lane pubs. The leitmotif is song. Solomons salutes the oral tradition of English folk-song without details of the traces Fox collects. She creates a laudably haunting elegy overall but one wants more than effect. Including specific lyrics or tunes would have made the finds and the hunter's feelings about them more plausible and interesting.

The author of Mr Rosenblum's List has a bigger literary ambition: to tell a great love story hinged on a life-changing decision. We pass through 50 years of Harry Fox-Talbot's life understanding that at some point - when and how is not immediately clear - he has claimed Edie from his brother.

Love and music, twin passions, turn Fox into a celebrated composer. But we only know Edie through him, and she becomes a folksy object, singing in Yiddish of Russian snows but never explaining herself or her rise into English society.

Clinically or sorrowfully, we are not sure, Fox stitches Edie's melodies into his plaudit-winning "Song for Hartgrove Hall". Perhaps Solomons means this as a doubly powerful memorial to two once great musical cultures. But the music and Jewishness ultimately sit uneasily together.

Fox discovers that his grandson is a piano prodigy, the family musical talent living on. But he remains oddly cold towards the antecedence of the love of his life. As she goes to ground in Bournemouth's Jewish cemetery, he sticks with his own roots, memories of larksong and misty picnics, and, one suspects, an age-old distrust of Jews.

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