Barbara Trapido’s Sex and Stravinsky (2010) is, let’s start of by saying, not what it sounds like. There’s not much sex in this book and not even that much Stravinsky. It tells the interweaving stories of several individuals somehow connected to each other. We have Josh and Caroline, who meet and get married as PhD students in England. Years on we have Zoe, their teenager daughter. Across the world, in South Africa, we have Hattie, Josh’s old ballet teacher and first love; we have her husband Herman and their daughter Cat. And then we meet Jack, Josh’s foster brother, who slips in and out of other people’s identities.
I love novels that have interweaving plots. For the first half of the book it feels pleasantly like connected short stories, until the strands start to come together. I like how each chapter tends to be from a different character’s point-of-view, and how we often get the same events, the same moments, told from multiple perspectives. The narrative structure is well done, as is the weaving in and out of past and present events. I thought the time jumps and narrative distance were handled very well, especially as several chapters end up covering some ten years of a character’s life.
The writing, is to my mind, excellent. There’s something simple and frank about the narrative style which I really enjoyed. It’s hard to explain without an example, so let’s look at this sentence: ‘Caroline always looks fabulous in old photographs, except that sometimes her head has been cut off. This is because she’s taller than everyone else in the picture. Caroline is blonde and six foot tall.’ I think perhaps it’s the balance between viewpoint and narrative distance that I enjoyed. I’m also big fan of the immediacy of the third person present tense, although sometimes the tenses do seem a little confused in flashback scenes. There’s a pleasant fairy tale or perhaps even Dickensian quality to some of the writing; I quite like that Caroline’s mother is referred to as ‘The Witch’ and her sister as ‘The Less Fortunate’.
I thought the characters were in general well done. Some, such as Caroline’s mother or sister, did feel a bit like stereotypes, but from their fairy tale names I imagine that was intentional. I feel like you get an understanding of all the characters as you dip in and out of their viewpoint. Josh was my favourite character; yes, he seems a little weak at times but I thoroughly believed in his weakness, that he is just the sort of person who would act as he does. Jack too intrigued me, as did his backstory. The whole history of the plots in South Africa, and the background of Apartheid was well executed. I might have liked some of the social issues to be a little more centre-stage, but they did add an interesting undertone to the novel.
Basically, I really really liked this book – until about three quarters of the way through. I found the characters intriguing and well-defined. The narrative structure is great, and I absolutely love the writing style. However, I’m just not massively sold on the plot. There are just too many coincidences in this book – and my favourite author is Charles Dickens, so my threshold for coincidences is pretty high. I don’t think I’d have minded any of the coincidences on their own, but the series of ten or more massive coincidences that lead the plot to its conclusion for me began to jar quite quickly. On the one hand I like all the doubling, but on the other hand it just wasn’t believable and made a serious and interesting story feel at times a little silly.
The ending felt so contrived and neat. I think Trapido was going for a Shakespearian comedy style ending, but I’m just not quite sure it worked. It took me out of the story because I kept questioning how possible any of this was. I don’t mind ridiculous plots, but part of the problem here is that the majority of the book is not in the slightest ridiculous. It’s set up, to my mind, as a realist, if stylistically told, novel – so when we get to the last quarter of the book it feels as though Trapido has somehow changed what she’s doing entirely. For me, the plot just didn’t quite work.
I was disappointed with the ending, but I did still enjoy this book overall. It’s very readable and only took me a day, and the characters were interesting. Even if the plot didn’t quite work for me, I absolutely loved the writing style, so I’m sure I’ll be reading another Trapido novel in the future.
Greatest strength: The writing style. It was easy and enjoyable to read.
Greatest weakness: The ending, and the plot. It all felt far too neat.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘Josh meets Caroline in a shared student house in London. The time is late 1970s so everyone in the house looks hideous… All the men have got too much hair, which tends to come lank, matt and flecked with dandruff. The women wear floatly purple things, worn over flared jeans, or full-length floatly purple things that go from shoulder to ankle. Josh remembers this as the Purple Time.’
(I just think this is a lovely opening to a book.)
Next week: Down The Rabbit Hole, by Juan Pablo Villalobos