The Courage Consort, by Michel Faber

I didn’t intend to write about this book, thinking I had nothing to say about it. However, the three novellas have stuck with me for weeks like a tune that I cannot get out of my head.

The first concerns a vocal group that has received a grant to spend two weeks in a Belgian chateau preparing for a difficult concert. Told mostly from the point of view of one of the women, the director’s wife, the story teases out the harmonics and dissonances of the ever-changing relationships between the three men and two women who make up the group.

The second follows a woman who goes on an archeological dig in Whitby, England, taking along her nightmares from a stint in Bosnia. She encounters a man with a dog and finds herself in the middle of a two hundred-year-old murder mystery.

The third, oddly enough, relates the adventures of two small children brought up in total isolation by their parents in an Arctic research station. What is most remarkable about this story is the way Faber captures the world-view of such children, their beliefs and magical thinking.

I picked up the book because my attention was caught by the settings: I’ve been to Belgium and explored its dark woods and golden fields. I’ve spent time in Whitby, climbed the steps to the Abbey ruins, and walked along the Marine Parade. I haven’t been to either pole but, buried in Scott’s journals or Cherry-Gerard’s memoirs, sometimes feel as though I have.

What has stuck with me, however, is not so much the pleasure of revisiting places I love as it is the characters. The woman in Whitby kept saying, “‘I want. I want.'” So fundamentally human. And yet so poignant, with its unspecified object. In these stories, people fumble toward understanding what they want, sometimes aware of, but more often disregarding the effect their pursuit is having on others.

One reason I read so much is that motives—my own and those of others—remain so murky to me. I search stories for clues, motifs, signatures. I find people who want without knowing what for, who recognise a little too late that the random notes are actually a tune, who reach for a resolution that slips away even as their fingers seem to close on it. I took comfort from the children, who at least understood what they were looking for when they found it.

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