When art historians at the Chicago Art Institute examined Picasso’s The Old Guitarist with X-rays, they saw what visible and ultraviolet light had suggested: the faces of two ghostly figures peering out from behind the solitary blue musician bent over his guitar.
For nearly three decades, Ann Ireland has been peering behind the layers into the psychology of the artist. Her 1985 award-winning first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, explores the tension between two sisters in love with a Japanese pianist. And her 1996 novel, The Instructor, and the 2002 Governor-General’s Award short-listed novel Exile, both examine treacherous relationships in the visual and literary arts.
Ten years later, Ireland turns an observant eye – or ear, I should say – to the world of competitive music.
The setting for the novel is the Montreal International Classical Guitar Competition, a high-stakes event where elite guitar players from all over the world meet for a gruelling week of master classes and a competition where careers can be built, or shattered, in a single performance. Success teeters on a vividly executed gavotte, topples on an over-extended rubato or moment of distraction.
The novel opens with Toby Hausner considering a return to competitive music after a decade of hiatus. As an 18-year-old, he’d suffered a breakdown on a Paris stage that cost him his career. Practising into exhaustion, he’d taken the short slide from genius into illness. At a halfway house, Toby meets Jasper, a therapist there, and they become lovers. Ten years Toby’s senior, Jasper provides Toby with the kind of supportive relationship that allows him to recover. And until talk emerges of re-entering professional music, it seems they’ve lived a comfortable and quietly structured life.
Ireland portrays Toby’s struggle as one between innocence and experience. While Toby will admit that it was Jasper’s therapeutic doting that allowed him to rebuild his life – because it “turned out that life skills were just what he was missing” – Jasper’s routines and schedules feel increasingly smothering.
For Toby, taking part in the Montreal competition offers the possibility of a comeback – concert tours, prestigious teaching jobs, and even fame. But it also means revisiting the conditions that brought on his first bout of illness. And for Jasper, it means losing control of Toby.
Ireland is an impressive weaver of storylines, and the novel has a slew of major and minor characters that build on the theme of innocence and experience.
Lucy, a parent of twin teens, has plenty of life skills but worries that she’s too old to launch a career. Competition judge Manuel is wise with experience, but considers leaving his family in Cuba and defecting to Canada. Trace, a free-spirited teen from the West Coast, has loads of seemingly effortless talent, but wonders if the high-stress life of competitive music is what she desires.
However, some of the subplots seem heavy-handed. The strangest is Jasper’s disintegrating relationship at the institute where he is a therapist, and the institute’s handling of a SARS-like virus that wipes out victims’ memories.
The novel draws a lot of parallels between creativity and mental illness. Depending on your experience, you’ll either be convinced by Ireland’s lumping of assorted matters of the mind with creativity, or you won’t.
However, what Ireland does exceedingly well is mimic a creative mind under intense pressure. She has the ability to render acoustic sound in language that is beautiful and startling. What is perhaps most convincing is her depiction of Toby’s struggle to integrate his music and his life, and to reclaim what the impetuousness of his youth cost him. As success becomes tangible, Toby realizes that there’s a whole lot of range between burning out and fading away.
Jessica Michalofsky is a Victoria fiction writer and critic.