"The Courage Consort", possibly the seventh best-known acappella vocal ensemble in Britain, are given two weeks in a Belgian chateau to rehearse their latest commission, the complicated Partitum Mutante. But can the piece be performed?
Admirers of Belgian writer Michel Faber's magnificent breakthrough novel, The Crimson Petal and the White
, may be surprised by how well his taut but unhurried prose translates to shorter fiction in the three novellas of The Courage Consort
. It helps, of course, that the stories--minor marvels of suspenseful pacing and atmosphere--are unified by a large, old-fashioned theme: the loss of innocence (and, in one case, the struggle to preserve it). In the title story, an English vocal ensemble travels to Belgium for a two-week residency at a rural chateau, an opportunity to rehearse a notoriously difficult and possibly pointless new composition. Catherine, the soprano--and the dependent, emotionally fragile wife of the ensemble's director--hears plangent cries from the surrounding woods each night. Like Mrs. Dalloway, Catherine feels herself approaching middle age without having achieved adulthood. If she goes into the woods--facing the ghostly legend of a simple-minded mother and her baby, lost there near the end of World War II--will she find her grown-up self? The second novella, "The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps," traces a paper conservator's nightly unraveling of an 18th century oil merchant's tight-scrolled deathbed confession. And the third, "The Fahreinheit Twins," is one part Angela Carter, one part Jack London: a scary fairy tale translated to a glittering ice-bound wilderness.
Events that would be sensational in the hands of most writers--gruesome nightmares, hauntings, possible murders--are serenely dispatched by Faber, who has bigger emotional game in sight. And while every writer has characteristic tics and favorite phrases, the joy here is in observing Faber's growing mastery, and how few the limits on his talent. --Regina Marler