The Children’s Bach is the kind of book I wish I’d written. It’s taut, self-assured and barrels along without an inch of hand-holding. Although I admit to getting uncomfortably lost during the first ten or so pages, everything clicked once I settled into its rhythm.
In this book, the lives of four grownups and three children intersect in unexpected ways. One side represents morals, ideals, naivety, family, structure; the other: jadedness, hedonism, independence, freedom. Both have valuable lessons to teach the other, and seeing these unfold is a treat. Every character here is strong and complex. They each have light and shade, and everyone – even the ‘villain’ of the piece – is capable of winning our respect in one breath and letting us down in another. I could flail about attempting to intellectualise what it was that made this novella so powerful. But the important thing – what I really hope to impart – is that it somehow got me to lower my guard and care. It made me feel for, and alongside, its characters. This, to me, is the intangible measure of a great book.
On a technical front, though, The Children’s Bach is an absolute powerhouse. Garner’s prose is consistently precise and effortlessly stylish. Amazingly, the dizzying insights never compromise the pacing. I actually feel I’ll have to read it again sometime just to sit back and appreciate the writing (as it was, I was so invested in her characters that I devoured it like a hungry swine). Garner authentically recreates Melbourne’s suburbs, giving them all the spirit and grit they deserve. Her focus is on the minutiae, and it’s when these tiny details accumulate and weave together that our Australian culture is showcased, with all of its darkness and eccentricities.
Music is, as the title suggests, a thematic binding between these characters. Garner explores the ways in which music punctuates and enriches our lives. It is embedded in us, whether we’re aficionados, performers, or casual listeners. Like the way music can inform a memory, I was fascinated by this undercurrent.
The last thing I’ll mention – and I alluded to this earlier – is the way Garner’s narrative powers along without regard for the reader. When each scene ends, the reader is forced to reorient themselves in a new situation, in the headspace of a new character, in a new time or place. There are no polite explanations; it can take as long as a page to pick up the context of the new scene. Some scenes even feature multiple characters, with the POV shifting of its own accord. It really shouldn’t work, but it does. Characters are introduced as vague pronouns. You might assume, based on their actions, that ‘she’ is one character acting normally, only to discover it’s another doing something wildly outside their normal parameters. This lends The Children’s Bach a sense of mystery. For a literary novel, this one’s a real page-turner.
Some may find this determination to upend the reader frustrating, and I suppose that criticism would be valid. I found it bold, thrilling; we are constantly headed somewhere new and exciting! There are no boring, fluffy, ‘middle bits’, and picking up a new scene’s context is never more difficult than it needs to be. Frankly, it’s refreshing not being pandered to. Garner doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence. She says, ‘Keep up, or get out!’ and the book is so much better for it.