by Michel Faber
150 pages, Canongate
Review by Marc Nash
I was in between books. I knew a research-related non-fiction book was due to be delivered to me the next day. So I wanted something short, but not short stories. Something satisfying I could knock off in a day. This turned out to fit the bill perfectly.
An accapella quintet, performers of difficult modern compositions. They have a date in a European modern music festival in Belgium. They are housed in a chateau in the middle of a forest in order to rehearse. They are called 'Courage' not for their ambition in tackling difficult works, but because it is the surname of Roger, the group's leader and driving force. The book is narrated by his wife Catherine, whose mind has been unraveling for some years now, but she still possesses the voice of an angel. A mentally unstable artist, she reminded me of Patrick Gayle's heroine from "Notes From An Exhibition", but unlike that character, whom I found frustratingly opaque and exclusionary of the reader, Catherine's manias and paranoia are well-rendered and credible. This was a far better portrait of the artist struggling with their sanity.
The Courage Consort is slight but for all that a pitch-perfectly scored orchestration of the five characters moving round one another in what is almost a prison. The two female members, Dagmar and Catherine, are the ones who venture out into the forest, even though for Catherine it threatens a creature whose wails unhinge her during her sleepless nights. Very quickly little routines in a foreign space are established for each character, the inter-relationship each ritual invites or excludes so that the whole is a rather wonderful tapestry of the group dynamics of a collaborative band of artists. When they are visited in turn by the festival director, the composer of the willfully difficult piece they are performing, the designer of their backdrop visuals and a Luxembourg journalist, the subtle changes in the dynamics through the intromission of each of these is fascinating to plot. Almost like particles in a collider, Faber demonstrates wonderful control over the nuanced changes and subtle changes of state.
I am ever so slowly working my way through Faber's entire catalogue, not an honour I bestow readily. I think some Faber fans feel this novella to be too slight and maybe it was my circumstances that demanded a one-day read, but I am so admiring of his economy, his easy insight into human beings and group dynamics on show in this book that I simply cannot agree with his critics here. And I don't even like accapella music, but I fell in love with this book. Maestro! Encore!