What is this book like? Perhaps it is a a kaleidoscope of stories somehow connected to the Danish court? Or perhaps a cacophony of different melodies, who are all somehow connected.
This story takes place in the early 17th century at the court of king Christian IV of Denmark. And we encounter a variety of different people. First and foremost, King Christian who wants to be the perfect king, is educated and cultured, but bothered by memories of a childhood friend and who needs music to keep silence at bay and who admits to raping his wife. The king’s wife Kirsten is desperately unhappy in her marriage, wants to marry her German lover instead and takes out her unhappiness on everyone around her. Into her household arrives the young country girl Emilia, who mourns her late mother and hates her stepmother, Magdalena, who has Emilias father and brothers under a spell. Emilia feels there is no room for her in her father’s house, but at court she misses her beloved, strange little brother Marcus that she left behind. Into this court circle arrives English lutist Peter Claire.
People think the young lutist is too beautiful for this world, and he seems to be surrounded by an aura of ill-fatedness and tragic endings. He loves music and Emilia, reads Descartes, and for some unknown reason has left a good position in Ireland and come to the cold and inhospitable Denmark-Norway.
“In his twenty-seven years of life, women have behaved towards Peter Claire, as the sea behaves towards the wind. His power to disturb their calm, to whip ip their longings and even -at some ardent soirée in the early hours – to cause their mouths to be touched with a fleck of passionate foam, has never deserted him.”
Another figure in the book is the Countess of Finegal who is loosing her loving husband to an obsession with composition. We have Peter’s worried family in England.
So there are many threads in this book, but they are all well-drawn with their own unique way of viewing the world, and I immensely enjoyed getting to know them all. But these character are not perfect. Some other reviewers have criticized the book for being too black and white, but I do not think that is the case; we have some very unhappy and depressed people in this book and it makes them do bad things. Marcus’ father is not out to harm his child, but he is afraid of leaving the dream world his new wife has built up around him. Magdalene also just wants to be loved, but she wants to be loved by everyone. Kristin is the opposite, she only wants the love of a select few: Otto and Emilia. But she is also perceptive about how the gender roles of her time are restricting her possibilities in life:
“As to being a shallow vessel, woman should not be vessels at all if men did not treat them as such! We would prefer to be Ourselves and Human, and no mere receptacle for men’s lust, but what choice do we have? And if we are, in these miserable times, found to be shallow, it is because we are filled to the brim with the products of men’s licentiousness and cannot bear to take into us one single droplet more!”
Like so many of us, we can be insightful and understanding of other people’s situation, but not each other. Emilia is capable to understand that Kirsten Munk treats those around her horribly because she is unhappy, but Emilia is not able to understand her own actions toward her little brother, whom she loves but also tells that he killed their mother when he was born.
Every one is occupied with their own life story, their own worries and do not perceive the troubles in the lives of those around them. And so each point-of-view feels very insular and isolated, detached from the other stories. But you Rose Tremain masterfully pulls all the threads together, and I would recommend to anyone.