There are writers who, while not natural storytellers, are so skilled at their craft that the story fuses itself into a commendable and coherent whole from structural elements painstakingly arranged. Sharon Maas is not one of these.
In this her third novel, The Speech of Angels, Maas proves herself once again to be a gifted and natural storyteller. Her story pours out, seemingly of its own volition, in such fluidity of movement and beauty of language that any structural flaws or minor inconsistencies are glazed over and become imperceptible to the reader and irrelevant to his enjoyment.
Maas's writing style tends more to the narrative than to dialogue, and in the hands of a lesser writer this would slow the tempo of the work and constrict the flow. With Maas, however, her use of metaphor and imagery is so evocative that any slowing merely allows for appreciation of the poetic prose and its impact upon the senses.
"It was an oval pool of turquoise tiles and shallow water which caught the early morning sunlight and played with it in concentric circles rippling backwards from the spitting fish."
"Music is well said to be the speech of angels," said the dour Thomas Carlyle. This famous quotation, from which the title of this volume is taken, was the opening line of his scathing essay on the opera in which he attacked what he saw as the debasement of music for the frivolous amusement of a sybaritic populace. He argued that "nothing among the utterances allowed to mankind is felt to be so divine" as music, and that it should be used as a vehicle for worship for whatever in mankind is divine.
Maas seems to agree for it is this quest for the divine in music which forms the tonic key in this romantic epic tale of a gifted child's progression to adulthood and self-realization.
Five-year-old Jyothi, happily secure in her Indian village, is seduced away from awareness of self and boundaries by the pure siren sound of a sitar which resonates in her very soul. "Light and sound merged into a single entity pulling her forward... Music! This was music!... She stood in the doorway transfixed..."
But technology intrudes upon the age-old customs of her village and sweeps away her family's livelihood taking with it the planned, pre-destined order of their lives. Jyothi is soon living in a hovel on a Bombay pavement, but the squalor of her surroundings fails to dim her inner glow and she is befriended by a childless German couple, Jack and Monika, who are intrigued by her vivacity and by her face which had "a wraithlike beauty to it, a luster barely veiled by the smudges on the thin cheeks."
When tragedy strikes and her world disintegrates, she is adopted by the couple and taken to Germany, but her trauma lingers and she remains encased in a solitary inner world, finding it difficult to communicate even as she struggles with feelings of inferiority and the rejection of her peers.
It is then discovered that she has a rare musical talent which her adopted mother, Monika, devotes herself to honing and perfecting, and Jyothi is soon feted and courted as a prodigy, a Wunderkind. But, though she plays the violin to please her mother, there is no longer any joy for her in music, and the spontaneous laughter which had lit her early childhood is gone.
Even as she begins to heal and develop, tragedy again shakes her foundations and she must reconstruct herself anew, but this time there is an accepting school environment and an empathetic friend. A visit to India disturbs this ephemeral new equilibrium, however. She sees herself in a child-beggar, "I had done that myself... I had borrowed my neighbour's baby and lugged it around as an asset to my begging forays. I was that little girl."
As Jyothi achieves material success as a violinist, and as betrayal drives her to seek solace in striving for greater technical perfection, she develops a brittle and imperious outer persona which thrives on adulation and applause, and succeeds in suppressing her lingering self-image of the 'street child.' Then the fragile edifice she has constructed crumbles in a crescendo of silence and she is forced to confront her roots.
Unlike Maas's earlier works, which incorporated broader societal issues, this is a study of an individual's travails and triumphs, drawing more upon psychology than sociology and, where the societal issue of racial intolerance arises, it is dealt with in the pragmatic manner of a child.
The adults are shocked by a bigoted diatribe but thirteen-year-old Jyothi is unfazed, "I had known for years that people judged me because of my origins and because of how I looked... You can't fight these people; you can only shield yourself from them, and that is what I had been doing for the last seven years."
Maas herself, a "mixed native of British Guiana," who was propelled as a teenager from 1960s Guyana to an English boarding school, and who later lived and worked in Germany, would certainly have had experience of bigotry, but the issue is treated with a sensitivity which keeps it from clouding the perspectives of her characters.
Literature is often adjudged by its mimetic quality, its ability to imitate life, and often seems more real than life itself. Maas succeeds in this mimesis. Her characters are finely and realistically drawn and, while a few remain one-dimensional, the main actors are portrayed with all their idiosyncrasies.
From Monika's neurotic but stoic nature, with her strongly disciplined Protestant ethic which she imparts to her adopted daughter, to the laid-back sensitivity of Jack and the anomic nature of the man Jyothi falls in love with, the characters live. However, Jack and Monika's personal lives fade from view when Jyothi joins the family and assumes centre stage and, as they become the supporting instruments in this literary concerto, their own lives become a bit too muted.
The book's structure is elegantly simple, without the complex inter-related plot structures of Maas's earlier works as it relies instead upon the internal struggles of the individual for its complexity, and though there are occasional descents into the style of the romance novel, these do not significantly detract from the quality of the writing itself.
The Speech of Angels transports the reader into a world of emotions and sensory images - superimposed upon the experience of different cultures - and the imagery lingers. It is both entertainment and fine writing. It is a great book.
Sharon Maas The Speech of Angels (London: HarperCollins, 2003, 422p. ISBN 0-00-712385-X)