The last time I read a novel by this author, it was set in the world of art dealing and gallery exhibitions (The Gallery of Vanished Husbands). No points for guessing that this book has music as its background, the song collector of the title being Harry Fox-Talbet, a composer. The story is told over two time periods, the first just after World War Two, as Harry, his brothers, Jack and George, return with their father to the family mansion that had been requisitioned by the army for the duration.
Now they have it back it is a crumbling ruin, scarcely worth restoring. His older siblings make plans for how they can keep their damaged home, much against their father’s wishes. Meanwhile Harry visits cottages and pubs, asking people to sing old folk songs so he can write them down, and steadily falls in love with Edie Rose, Jack’s girlfriend. Edie is a famous singer, the songbird who helped keep people’s chins up as the bombs fell and the world went mad. It was hard not to hear Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll meet again’ in my mind, which may not be quite what the author intended.
This story alternates with the modern-day, as Harry, now elderly, has recently buried his late wife, Edie (yes, that Edie) and is eating himself out with grief. His daughter descends upon him one day, desperate for a last-minute babysitter for four-year-old Robin, a difficult child at the best of times. As Robin rages and rips up a precious photo album, all Harry can think of doing is sitting at the piano to play Mozart. Instantly, the child settles and calls for more. Over the next few weeks, Harry discovers his grandson is a musical prodigy.
The two storylines slowly come together: Harry’s composing and relationship with Edie; the problem of managing a young boy’s talent while encouraging a normal childhood. When elderly Harry discovers a recent Christmas card from his estranged brother Jack to Edie, is there a chance for reconciliation?
Solomons creates wonderful characters – well-rounded and interesting, each with their bugbears and flaws and yet oddly likeable. You get the feeling that being highly talented and being nice don’t necessarily go together. But that’s OK. The tradition of song-collecting is mentioned in an interesting afterword, and the book itself is full of music, Beethoven and Rachmaninov, as well as simple folk tunes that Harry records.
The English countryside is richly depicted, the scents and sounds of rural life and the changing seasons. There’s a wonderful scene when Harry has an accident with the tractor in the snow which makes you feel cold just reading about it. Though sometimes the prose seems a little overburdened with similies. A quick look finds a shortish paragraph in which the parched lawn is compared to threadbare carpet, the honey-scented garden compared to a French patisserie and a sleeping snake’s skin compared to molten metal. Though I guess it captures the scene.
The Song Collector is an original and engaging story I had been meaning to read for some time. So glad that I finally picked it up. Three and a half out of five from me.