This new book actually came out last year, but I am including it here because it certainly deserves more attention.... Sarah Rayne’s Death Notes featured on the blog a couple of years ago, and Sarah has also done a guest post here on Clement Dane’s Broome Stages. Sarah and I met online mostly because we have very similar tastes in books – we have bonded over our love for the same titles and authors. And luckily I really like her own books as well.
Song of the Damned by Sarah Raynepublished 2018
‘Have either of you read Tulliver’s opera?’ asked Phin. ‘Sorry, that sounds like a misprint of Gulliver’s Travels.’
‘No we haven’t. But we do know that it’s been turned down by more theatrical agents and music directors than you can imagine,’ said Harriet.
‘The word is that the rejections were pretty scathing,’ said Dilys Davy. ‘Even then we might have considered it more seriously, except - '
‘Except that we believe a number of those rejections more or less said it was a straight steal from another opera. Something called Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc. D’you know it?’
‘Yes. Not well, but I do know it. It’s the story of a group of Carmelite nns who were beheaded during the French Revolution. It’s very dark – very moving though. Has The Martyrs got French Revolution content?’
‘We think so.’
commentary: This intriguing novel could have been designed by a computer for me, it contains so many of my favourite features: mystery, dual timeline in past and present, eerie moments of wondering about the supernatural, nuns, convents, schools and schoolgirls, and opera. Oh, and high entertainment value and jokes. But of course it wasn’t designed by a computer, it was written by the excellent Sarah Rayne.
The book stars Phineas Fox, music historian and researcher, who also appeared in Death Notes. He is called in to a girls’ school to look at an opera created by a composer, Gustav Tulliver, who had close ties to the building: there is an arts celebration upcoming – should the opera be performed? Or is it a ripoff of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites?
The chapters in modern times are interspersed with some 18th century narratives and a diary. (A bit like the recently featured Madeleine King-Hall book). In the historical section there are nuns and young women, dashing young music teachers and some frisky goings-on – there is a clever and unusual and sex scene, unromantic but probably realistic. Meanwhile Fox and his friend Arabella (an ex-pupil of the school) dig up the dirt on Tulliver, who was perhaps over-keen on young women with beautiful voices. His niece Olivia is still around, defending her uncle’s reputation and causing trouble.
All girls’ schools worth their salt (private, public, old, new, religious, secular, posh or downmarket) have tales of hauntings and girls whose ghosts haunt the buildings. This time it is Ginevra, and one of the teachers explains:
‘It’s the name. That’s what got to the artless little grubs in the first place. They think it’s romantic. They think of someone called Ginevra as young and beautiful. Soulful eyes and skimpy garments with her ghost drifting around the west wing on moonless nights, waiting to be whisked away by a sexy hero-villain.’
The French Revolution plays a key part. The Poulenc opera [spoiler alert] ends with the nuns walking off the stage one by one: you then hear the thuds as their heads are cut off, it is a most remarkable scene, and one that is difficult to get out of your head. The book also deals with the almost unimaginable practice of walling people up, L’emmurrer – pictured above (though that is, self-evidently, man not nun).
The book is a great mix, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The crouching nuns are from a performance of Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites that I saw at Grange Park Opera a few years ago.