Books on GIF #53 — 'The Violins of Saint-Jacques' by Patrick Leigh Fermor
|Books on GIF||Sep 10, 2017|
This Sunday's book is 'The Violins of Saint-Jacques' by Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Not going to take up much of your time this week, guys. But first a word of warning: I can't really review this book without giving away much of the plot. So if you don't want spoilers, stop here and catch me next week. The narrator, an Englishman traveling through the Greek islands, encounters an elderly French woman, Berthe, while on a stopover. They get to talking, and before long it's siesta time. She offers him a room to nap, and inside it he sees a painting made by Berthe of an island in the Caribbean with a volcano. He asks her about it, saying he had been in the area on a previous voyage. Berthe tells him about her early life on the island in the painting, Saint-Jacques. Her descriptions, with additional information from the narrator, conjure the lush world of the fictitious island during the late French-colonial period. There is so much world building in this little novel that it almost felt like there wasn't going to be a plot. As Berthe's recollections went on and on, I wondered:
Midway through the book comes the set-piece drama. Berthe describes a gala thrown by the local count. She goes scene by scene through every stage of the event, until she recalls finding a note left by her friend Josephine, who reveals her intention to flee to France that night to elope with an undesirable gentleman who may already be married. Berthe and two other men give chase, hoping to catch Josephine before she sets sail. They spy the light of a boat anchored offshore, and assuming that's where Josephine has gone, they jump in another boat and row out to meet it. But, she isn't there. Suddenly, there's a terrible noise. They look back to the island. They see:
Everyone on the island is killed as it suddenly sinks into the sea following the volcanic blast. I didn't see that coming! I mean, there were some rumbles from the volcano earlier in the book (that, of course, no one paid attention to), but I did not expect mass annihilation. Then at the end of the book, there was a touching moment between Berthe and the narrator where the 'violins' are explained, and the story clicks together perfectly. All that world building had a purpose. It felt as if the author was going:
So what I thought was going to be a boring book that I'd pan turned out to be pretty good. It reaffirmed my belief that you should always try to read a book all the way to the end because otherwise you could miss gems like this. It also reaffirmed the fact the future is always uncertain. One minute you're at a ball having a good time, and the next you're being chased by lava.
'The Violins of Saint-Jacques' by Patrick Leigh Fermor was originally published in Great Britain by André Deutsch Ltd. and John Murray in 1953. It was published by The New York Review of Books in 2017. 139 pages.
What's next? In the coming weeks I'll review 'A Gentleman in Moscow' by Amor Towles, 'Avid Reader' by Robert Gottleib and 'Living' by Henry Green.
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Thanks for reading!*
* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review! Welcome back!