Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
It’s not easy to talk about music – let alone write about it – but A Secret Music by Susan Doherty Hannaford finds a way to do so with subtlety and grace.
Set in Montreal in the 1920s and 30s, the novel follows the life of Lawrence, a young musical prodigy whose only focus is the piano. His life revolves around music: he decides at a young age that he will devote everything to the piano, and so he practices vigorously, allowing himself little time for anything else.
Behind Lawrence’s piano playing, however, are darker realities. Set against the backdrop of the rise of National Socialism in Europe and the beginnings of the Second World War, there’s an ominous undertone to everything in Lawrence’s life.
His own family is riddled with secrets. He lives with his parents, sister and brother, but his aunt is often over because his mother is mentally ill and sometimes in the hospital for months on end. His father and his aunt won’t tell him what’s wrong and he is never allowed to visit her. When she is at home, she is often in bed for days.
Lawrence and his younger brother, John, have their own secret though. John is also sick with some mysterious physical ailment, but neither boy wants to tell their mother until she is better. Lawrence helps John hide his illness even though Lawrence knows that his brother is getting worse.
Doherty Hannaford’s book negotiates these worlds of music and secrets by showing how each is related to the other. Lawrence uses the piano as a salvation and an escape, but just as the piano distracts him from the rest of his life, the pain of his family’s secrets fuels his ability to emotionally connect with the music.
The book demonstrates how art, in particular music, relies on heightened emotions. Lawrence’s mother lost much of her own family, and his brother, John, sings like an angel but is a sickly child. Even Lawrence’s piano teacher has lost most of her family. Music is seen as a salvation of sorts, of a way to harness negative emotions and give them purpose by transforming them into something beautiful. On a basic level, the novel looks at how art is created.
A Secret Music also plays with the tension between classical and jazz, between the old, traditional way of doing things and the newer form that values fun and creativity. Lawrence’s mother lives in the world of classical music, his father likes jazz, and Lawrence is able to appreciate both. Eventually he begins to write his own music, which brings to the fore the act of making art.
Lawrence’s world is heavily influenced by his relationship with his mother. Though sick for much of his life, she is an accomplished musician and first taught him how to play the piano when he was young. Music is a bond that helps them understand each other and grow close, leaving Lawrence’s bother and sister on the outside craving attention. Music, therefore, creates its own secrets as well.
The title plays off this notion: how can we know what someone else hears with a piece of music, what kind of emotional response it stirs within them? Though we can use art and music to communicate, it’s not always a language that is understood the same way by everyone.
The great strength of A Secret Music is that it doesn’t overemphasize what it’s like to play music. Lawrence doesn’t focus on technique; rather, he thinks about how the music makes him feel, the emotions he must harness in order to play a particular piece.
It is an extremely effective way of talking about music because it presents music simply as emotion. It opens up the personal, secretive world of each individual’s relationship with art, and glimpses the emotional world that often necessitates creativity.
A Secret Music is published by Cormorant Books.