I was very curious about this novel since I had known the writer as a musician under the name of John Wesley Harding back in the 1990s. As I was a fan of his music, I was very curious about what he could do as a novelist. This novel does not disappoint, even though you may read lukewarm reviews online. I will say this though, there is a lot of music terminology and description on which I am not well versed. It is less about the music and more about the mystery that drew me into the book. It is a thrilling novel, with a twist that I never even imagined possible.
It is a story within a story because of the similarities not just of the main character’s name, but of the way his own story unfolds, and that of the opera he writes. It begins in 1910 in England, with a music critic, our narrator Leslie Shepherd, who meets a brilliant young composer Charles Jessold at a party. He sees potential in the composer and wants to build a career for him. He intrigues him and the entire party with the story of a man, a composer, with a similar name, Carlo Gesualdo. The story of Gesualdo is a true and gruesome tale of a musician in Italy 1590, who murdered his wife and her lover when he caught them together. From that day, Shepherd and Jessold become fast friends, and they begin to collaborate on musical compositions together.
The book is divided into several parts. Part one is entitled, Charles Jessold, as I knew Him and is prefaced by a news article detailing the facts of the murder case against him, as well as a message from our narrator explaining the reasons he has decided to write this account of Jessold’s story, a kind of personal memoir, from the person who may have known him best. This section gives the story mostly from the point of view of their professional and working relationship. We do learn about Jessold’s drinking more and more as his work continues and about being imprisoned in Germany for several years during wartime. Part two, Post-Mortem, is written years later where we start to learn more of back story, the personal relationships that unbeknownst to us were playing out simultaneously, which seriously pulled the rug out from under me. This section really comes more from the perspective of Shepherd. He is urged to write the biography of Jessold by the family, and after resisting for a period, feels compelled to cooperate, to set the record straight. The final part is quite short, entitled Ars Moriendi, and only suggests without stating directly the fate of our narrator who has finally completed his biography.
One of the things that I loved so much about this book would definitely have to be the language. Stace has such a vast vocabulary and is not afraid to use it. His colorful use of language wove some of the best descriptions I have ever read. I found myself reading aloud to friends certain passages that I thought were simply brilliantly written, perfectly said, memorable, occasionally hilarious. From describing the mess at Jessold’s house as a “steeplechase”, to describing an armrest battle in the theatre as a “border dispute” which he does not expect to “reach a détente”, Stace is a veritable wordsmith. He is also a genius at plot twists, keeping his reader completely in the dark, without even a hint or nod in the direction of where it is going until we are there, mouth gaping open in disbelief, characters we believed existed but did not, murders or innocents who were in fact not, mystery tickets to the theatre, secrets whispered in the dark. All of it surprising, all of it unexpected. All of it brilliantly woven together.
Despite the detailed musical descriptions that I had difficulty following, I think this book deserves high praise. I, for one, thought it was fascinating, entertaining, and extraordinarily well-written.