THE GLASS HARMONICA
by Louise Marley
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
A glass harmonica is a musical instrument developed in the seventeenth century by Benjamin Franklin. Based on the principle that rotating glasses of different dimensions can create different tones, the instrument achieved a brief prominence before it lost much of its appeal, frequently being replaced in musical scores by flutes, which provide a similar, but not identical, sound. Louise Marley has written a novel which focuses on the use and mythology of the glass harmonica during two time periods. The story of Eilish Eam is set during the earliest days of the glass harmonica, while Erin Rushton’s life plays out against the background of the early twenty-first century.
Marley’s two heroines have strong similarities. Both play the glass harmonica and have relationships with men whose legs are damaged: the crippled child Mackie in Eilish’s case and Charlie, Erin’s paraplegic brother. Both plotlines deal with doctors attempting new methods of treatment, either electrical or bi-aural. Finally, both Erin and Eilish come to play Franklin’s original glass harmonica.One of the strengths of the novel is Marley's understanding of the musical sound and theory of the glass harmonica, giving a deep sense of realism to the musical portions of the novel. The reader feels Marley knows what she is describing when she talks about Erin's career as a performer as well as the more visceral musical knowledge which Eilish has. At the same time, Marley never fully describes the glass harmonica's design or working to the reader, who is left to picture what this historical instrument looked like. Although this is not a big point, it is somewhat infuriating.
The futuristic portions of the novel, set only a few years from now, are well described. If Marley isn't completely convincing in postulating a world of monorails and suborbital commuter flights within the next twenty years, it is not through lack of trying. Furthermore, the details are not important. They present a world which is different enough from ours to be in the future, but not so different as to alienate the reader. Erin's attempts to understand the strange wraith she sees occasionally leads her to a doctor who is also treating her crippled twin brother, Charlie, who is attempting to regain the use of his legs. Their sibling relationship is one of the strongest in the novel, although the relationship they both have with their mother seems a little odd.
While the part of the novel which focuses on Eilish in the eighteenth century is nearly as strong, it does suffer from some drawbacks. Marley's depiction of eighteenth century London does not seem to have as much depth as the more futuristic sections. While Eilish lacks the sibling relationship Erin has with Charlie, she does maintain a close, almost maternal relationship with the crippled toddler, Mackie. Replacing Charlie's physician is Eilish's patron, Benjamin Franklin, although he never fully takes center stage as a character. His role could have been strengthened by a more in depth look at the difference between the side of Franklin which helps Eilish rise above her origins to the side of Franklin which uses electricity to try to cure, but ultimately torture, a young girl. Finally, Eilish is given over to moments of melodrama which disrupts the general flow of the novel.
The Glass Harmonica is a well-written and interesting book. As with any novel about music, it comes with its own soundtrack which includes standard works by Haydn, Handel and other eighteenth century composers as well as the more esoteric work written for the glass harmonica and Marley's own fictional symphony "Moving Mars," based on Greg Bear's Hugo-winning novel of the same title.
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