Glassmusic: A Novel
Conundrum Press, paper, 215 pp, $12.95
Re-Tinting the Air
Sacred music played on glass by a blind preacher haunts the fjords of Rebecca Snow’s Norway in the early twentieth century, tantalizing his daughter, Ingrid, protagonist of her lyrical first novel. Both reader and Ingrid, youngest child of a large, farming family, will discover the meaning of vocation: a life in music. Alone among her siblings, Ingrid has perfect pitch, the ability to tune by ear, making her essential to her father’s career as a traveling musician and minister.
Of course, her gift is also a curse, as her indispensableness is resented not only by her sisters and brothers but also her mother. Isolated in a stark, beautiful landscape, the family’s home seethes with repressed desires and stoic secrecy. A severe Christianity permeates all their lives, until a young male visitor offers a glimpse of another sort of life all together, one in which poetry and music and art reign supreme.
“The fjord’s cold blue, its dark, hidden depth, reflected the hills across the water. The slopes rose up like an imprisoning wall. The geography of Norway enforced the country’s ignorant silence.”
The son of a neighbor, Stefan represents an open-mindedness hitherto foreign to Ingrid, who is groping her way toward adulthood during a time where the status quo stifles all inquisitive leanings. Her eldest sister, Kari, is doomed to marry an older man, also a minister, who has spent years molesting her, unbeknownst to the family until Ingrid chances upon them in the barn, a moment which becomes a fulcrum for Ingrid’s coming of age.
“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” T.S. Eliot might have been referring to the horrors of the first world war in his 1920 poem, “Gerontion,” but the question applies here as well, when innocence, if it ever existed, has vanished forever. Ingrid must decide whether to confront her parents with this information, whether or not her father can bear the news of such treachery perpetrated by his protégé.
“She looked up at the silver, cloudy sky. It seemed to hold God back, blocking him from anything she could sense.” Unlike her parents, for whom God and church apparently provide a sufficient moral armature, Ingrid seeks clarity in a murky world. Only her father’s music offers succor.
“The familiar sound echoed in the small room like the soft clang of a bell whose ring doesn’t fade, holding its one pure note as if a light, steady wind carried it further than natural sound would allow. Ingrid had fallen asleep many times to the music ringing across the yard and into her bedroom window. She smiled. She could make the sound, too.”
Although the atmosphere of Glassmusic presents itself as somber, its palette consisting of dark hues and shades penetrated occasionally by fleeting shafts of sunlight, it draws the reader in with deceptive simplicity. Like Ingmar Bergman’s films, Snow’s creation is a world unto itself, with its own code of conduct and rules of decorum. Contemporary readers will relax into the slowness of that life, where people remain in the villages where they were born, traveling by horse or foot or rowboat to neighboring towns, their days measured by the natural cycles of light, seasons, birth and death.
“Stefan followed her through the birches as the soft, high harmonics of the song’s end reached into the grove. The cracked bark – black, horizontal lines staggering up the slender trunks – seemed to Ingrid like inked words on scrolls set on end. She touched one of the lines and felt its roughness. Braile, she thought.”
Snow illuminates a rare cross-section of history, an era lost to us now, almost unimaginable, both for its human scale and prelapsarian faith in an accessible deity. Nature, unscathed, comforts all. “Mama scanned the sky’s arc, her expression relaxed, worshipping, Ingrid thought, as God re-tinted the air. The great wing of pink thinned and darkened into intense red.”